U.S. - Russia Polar Bear Agreement
TESTIMONY OF MARSHALL JONES, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SENATE COMMERCE COMMITTEE REGARDING THE U.S. – RUSSIA POLAR BEAR AGREEMENT
November 14, 2005
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Conservation and Management of the Alaska-Chukotka Polar Bear Population.
Amendments to Section 113(d) of the Marine Mammal Protection Act enacted in 1994 directed the Service, for the United States, to enter into negotiations with Russia to enhance the conservation and management of polar bear stocks. Since 1990, the Service has worked to improve cooperative research and management programs with Russia for the conservation of polar bears. Significant progress has been made in this effort. Building on this progress, United States and Russian representatives negotiated a bilateral agreement on the conservation and management of the shared Chukotka polar bear population of the Chukchi and Bering Seas in February 1998. This landmark environmental conservation agreement was signed by the governments of United States and Russia on October 16, 2000, with Senate advice and consent provided on July 31, 2003. Legislation will be necessary to implement the Agreement, and in May 2004 the Administration transmitted proposed implementing legislation to Congress. Implementation of this bilateral Polar Bear Agreement will represent a major step forward for polar bear conservation, and enhance our collaborative efforts with Russia to conserve shared natural resources.
The proposed U.S.-Russia Agreement would establish a common legal, scientific, and administrative framework for the conservation and management of the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population. The purpose of the Polar Bear Agreement is to ensure the long-term, science-based conservation of the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population. At present, polar bear harvest provisions and practices differ widely between the U.S. and Russia. Unknown (but potentially significant) levels of illegal harvest are occurring in Chukotka. While lawful harvest by Alaska Natives for subsistence purposes occurs in Alaska, U.S. law does not allow restrictions of this harvest unless a polar bear population is designated as “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, or listed as “threatened or endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. The Russian Federation will soon open a lawful polar bear hunting opportunity for subsistence purposes by native Chukotkans. When this happens, there will be an immediate, pressing need for the coordination of harvest restrictions on both sides of the border to prevent an unsustainable combined harvest. Such harvest could lead to the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population becoming depleted, threatened, or endangered. The Agreement will create a management framework to prevent this from happening.
The Polar Bear Agreement calls for the development of binding harvest limits at sustainable levels, prohibits the harvest of denning bears and females with cubs, and restricts certain methods of hunting, such as hunting with aircraft or large vessels. Commercial uses of harvested polar bears are limited to the creation and sale of handicrafts by Native people. The Agreement enhances support for collaborative research by the United States and Russia and provides a mechanism to coordinate these efforts with Native organizations in each country. This will significantly increase our understanding of the biology of polar bears, which are difficult to study as they inhabit one of the most inaccessible and harsh environments in the world.
The Polar Bear Agreement was developed through a sustained, inclusive and collaborative process over a ten year period. The agreement was fully coordinated with the Alaska Native community, representatives of the State of Alaska, the environmental community, and the Marine Mammal Commission. Representatives of these constituencies were members of the United States delegation that negotiated the terms of the Agreement and are fully committed to its goals.
The Administration has reviewed the Polar Bear Agreement and has determined that implementation will result in tangible, on-the-ground benefits to polar bears, the flagship symbol of the Arctic. Our review also indicated that legislation is necessary to fully implement the science-based management measures called for in the Agreement. With this in mind, on May 20, 2004, the Administration transmitted to Congress proposed implementing legislation, which would, among other things, authorize the Department to establish prohibitions against take and provide the enforcement authority for implementing the Agreement; establish the membership of the United States section of the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission; clarify voting arrangements for Polar Bear Commission decisions; and authorize appropriations for activities associated with implementation of the Agreement. We appreciate your interest and support prompt passage of appropriate implementing legislation.
Mr. Chairman, in closing, I would like to state that this Administration is committed to conserving and managing polar bears by working with our partners in a cooperative fashion. In particular, I want to emphasize the commitment to continued collaboration with the State of Alaska, and our partners in the Native community to conserve and manage this species. We look forward to working with you and Members of the Committee to implement the U.S. – Russia Polar Bear Agreement.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my remarks. I would be happy to answer any questions.