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#9 - JRL 7227
Biologists: Poaching of Polar Bears Up
June 18, 2003

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Russian hunters are taking an increasing number of polar bears, according to U.S. biologists who are worried the trend eventually could decimate the species.

Citing estimates that Russian hunters are taking an estimated 100 to 250 bears a year in the Chukchi Sea, a new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study concludes the increased hunting could imperil the bear population in much the same way hunters did in Alaska during the 1960s and 1970s.

Natives around the sea, which separates Alaska and Russia, have killed bears for food for generations. But the need for money may be driving the recent increase, said Scott Schliebe, polar bear project leader for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage.

Polar bear hides have also recently appeared for sale in Russia over the Internet, Schliebe said.

``It's the poorest part of Russia and they will practically do anything to raise money for survival over there,'' said Charlie Johnson, executive director of the Alaska Nanuuq Commission, which represents Alaska villages in conserving polar bears for subsistence.

U.S. polar bear populations plummeted in the '60s, when Alaska hunters took about 190 bears a year from the sea. Sport hunting was outlawed in 1972, and Alaska Natives, who take about 50 bears annually, now are the only group allowed to hunt them.

Russia banned polar bear hunting in the 1950s, but the ban has been harder to enforce since the Soviet Union collapsed, Schliebe said.

Using rough estimates of 4,000 polar bears in the sea and a hunting rate of 180 bears a year, the Fish and Wildlife report said the population could be cut in half in less than 20 years.

``When they reach a point of 50 percent of their historic high levels, then the population is in serious trouble,'' Schliebe said.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to begin hearings this week on a treaty the United States and Russia signed in 2000 to protect polar bear populations. The treaty, which President Bush has urged the Senate to ratify, would set limits on polar bear hunting by native populations.

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