Alaskan natives usually killed polar bears when the bears came ashore to feed on beach carrion or whale carcasses during the ice-free period in autumn. Onshore hunters used dog teams for transportation or hunted on foot. They also killed bears during whaling trips or when hunting walrus and bearded seals from small boats along the edge of pack ice. Most bears were killed during years when heavy ice drifted close to shore in autumn. Native Alaskans conducted polar bear hunts mainly around settlements close to the shores of the Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea, which were also suitable for hunting whales, walrus and seals.

Copyright: Polar Bears & Humans project / Ole J LioddenAlaskan polar bear hunting statistics for the Chukchi Sea (CS) and Southern Beaufort Sea (SB) areas, 1963-2016. See the Polar Bears & Humans book for source references.

Alaskan polar bear hunting activity peaked with 405 bears killed in 1966, as the figure above illustrates. This was a more-than-threefold increase compared with 20 years earlier. The main reason for the incline was the expanding trophy hunting business made possible by aircraft and few regulations. Each hunter could kill one polar bear, excluding cubs and females with cubs, from 1 January to 30 April. More restrictive hunting regulations became necessary as pilots and guides became more effective at taking polar bears, and more people wanted to participate.

The US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972 placed a moratorium of unspecified length on the hunting of all marine mammals in Alaska, including polar bears. Signed by President Richard Nixon, this was the first act by US Congress to call specifically for an ecosystem approach to natural resource management and conservation. Only Alaskan natives were allowed to hunt polar bears, but only if the activity was not wasteful and the polar bear population remained un-depleted. Furthermore, they could only sell polar bear skins manufactured into traditional items of handicraft or clothing.

After 1972 the number of polar bears native hunters could kill was still unrestricted, resulting in high variation from year to year, especially from 1973–85, as the figure above illustrates. Polar bear hunting reports were not mandatory, and the official statistics from Alaska were at best a minimum count. Canadian Inuit neighbours in the eastern parts of the Beaufort Sea area expressed concerns about the situation. They were afraid the polar bear subpopulation would decrease if hunting in the western parts of the Beaufort Sea continued unregulated. The Canadian hunters were regulated by quotas, but they shared the same polar bears as did the unregulated hunters in northeast Alaska.

Polar bear hunting in Alaska changed greatly in the 1970s. With the oil exploration boom in Prudhoe Bay between Kaktovik and Barrow, more money came into the local settlements. The Inupiat organised the North Slope Borough to secure their native rights to the land. The oil and gas industry provided new jobs, services and opportunities to the Beaufort Sea area, and more of the local hunters could afford to modernise their equipment. In the early 1980s, 90% of hunting transportation was by snowmobile and 7% was by small motorboat. This resulted in more efficient, safe and comfortable hunting; consequently, traditional polar bear hunting with dog teams or by foot nearly disappeared from Alaska.

Quota agreement for Chukchi Sea
Ever since illegal, unregulated hunting in Russia’s eastern territories began in the early 1990s, the Chukchi Sea polar bear subpopulation has been under serious pressure. From 1993–97 the US and Russia had numerous discussions about developing a management program for the polar bears in the Chukchi Sea area. In October 2000 both countries signed the US–Russia Polar Bear Treaty and created a joint commission with representatives from the US and Russian governments as well as native representatives of Alaska and Chukotka. The Joint Commission was supposed to establish hunting limits and policy guidelines for managing the local polar bear population.

In 2007 US President George W. Bush signed into law legislation implementing the agreement, and in 2010 the first quota for the Chukchi Sea area was set at an annual total of 58 polar bears, split between the two countries, even though Russia still did not allow polar bear hunting or implement its share of the bilateral hunting quota. In 2012 Alaskan hunters killed 60 polar bears on their side of the Chukchi Sea area, exceeding the combined annual quota for both signatories. Informed by a population study of the Chukchi Sea polar bears that was unpublished at the time, the annual quota increased from 58 to 85 polar bears in 2018.

Overall Alaska hunting
From 1963–2016, Alaska registered a total of 6,554 killed polar bears, as the figure above illustrates. Of those bears, hunters killed 2,263 in the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation area and 4,291 in the Chukchi Sea area. Before 1980 many polar bear kills were never recorded, and some of the statistics for the early years are incomplete. Even in 2018 there were concerns that polar bear kills were under-reported in Alaska.

Polar bear hunting activity in Alaska has decreased since the mid-1980s. In 2015, hunters only killed 17 polar bears, well under the total annual quota of 93 bears. This, the lowest number of kills registered in Alaska from 1963-2016, likely stemmed from at least one of a few changes.

First, the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation has gone from more than 2,000 bears in the early 1960s to fewer than 1,000 bears in recent years. Hunters, therefore, have had access to fewer available polar bears. Compounding the availability issue, reductions in sea ice habitat have limited the area’s polar bears – many of which follow retreating sea ice north in summer and autumn – from remaining on Alaska’s northern coast.

To top it off, the US federal ban on the import and export of polar bear products has greatly reduced demand in the US and strongly discouraged Alaskan hunters from poaching polar bears for commercial purposes. Not only are the US penalties for illegal hunting and trade effective deterrents, younger generations increasingly have less interest in subsistence hunting, to the great concern of many older coastal native Alaskans.

Learn more about polar bears
The information on this webpage is from Chapter 2.1 in the Polar Bears & Humans book. If you want to learn more about polar bears and conservation, order a copy of the book, and support the Polar Bears & Humans project.