Green groups and the American government are expected to lobby the global community to classify polar bears as a species threatened with extinction.
But Canada, home to sixty percent of the world's polar bears, is prepared to fight back. The indigenous populations in the Canadian Arctic say the polar bear trade is vital for their communities, while the Canadian government says the global trade of the bear's fur continues to be sustainable.
Despite the fact that Washington is raising the alarm about the threat to the bears' population, proponents of the trade point out that the data doesn't show any serious emergency — in 2014, one of the 19 polar bear subpopulations in the Arctic was growing, three were in decline and six were stable, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Data was unavailable on the remaining nine.
"The decline of sea ice habitat due to changing climate is the primary threat to polar bears."
Canada's northern communities say not only are the populations healthy, but that the bears are numerous enough to occasionally pose a threat to nearby towns. A smattering of polar bear attacks have occurred in northern communities, and some in the north say — likely because of food scarcity — the bears are becoming more aggressive. More than that, though, the polar bear hunt is hailed as being "in the Inuit's blood."
Nevertheless, for the third time in six years, the United States government is expected to urge members of a global animal protection pact to act on the melting Arctic and classify polar bears among the world's most endangered species. This would place them alongside the red panda and African bush elephant as "threatened with extinction." Doing so would outlaw the international sale of bear hides, and the Canadian pushback turns on this fact.
Washington also tried, and failed, to change the bears' classification in 2010 and 2013, with the effort being voted down both times. But with the waning of Arctic sea ice, pressure is mounting, and this effort might prove successful.
The question will come to a vote in September, and Canada has run a lobbying campaign in the lead-up, trying to sway Washington away from the plan. Canadian officials have met with American officials in Congress and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in recent months.
If America does succeed in re-classifying the polar bears, it will not technically ban Canada's polar bear hunts, but will forbid the international sale of the bear's fur.
"We are not denying climate change, because we are at the forefront of it, but at the same time, these predictions that in 100 years, the polar bear will be extinct, that is very far fetched."
Both Canada's government, and its Inuit communities who hunt the bear, say going after hunting is unnecessary and may threaten the Arctic's indigenous peoples.
"International trade is not a threat to polar bears, and the species does not meet the biological criteria [small and shrinking population] for an Appendix I listing at the current time," reads a statement posted to the Environment and Climate Change Canada website.
Polar bears are currently listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means the animal is at-risk, but may still be hunted and traded under some conditions. Appendix I covers species that may be at risk for outright extinction — trading animals found on that list is outright forbidden.
In the 1960s and 1970s, unregulated commercial and sports hunting led to a sharp drop in the polar bear population. But with tight regulations on hunting, the population has recovered to around 26,000 animals in 19 distinct groups across Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States, according to IUCN most recent estimates.Sixty percent of all polar bears are found in Canada, and the IUCN states that the annual hunt of 700 to 800 bear across the USA, Canada and Greenland is "thought to be sustainable in most subpopulations."
But for polar bears, the existential threat comes not from hunting, but from climate change.
"The decline of sea ice habitat due to changing climate is the primary threat to polar bears," states the US Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) draft conservation plan. "Short of action that effectively addresses the primary cause of diminishing sea ice, it is unlikely that polar bears will be recovered."
Canada's northern population recognizes that threat.
"We are not denying climate change, because we are at the forefront of it," Adamie Delisle-Alaku told VICE News from Washington. "But at the same time, these predictions that in 100 years, the polar bear will be extinct, that is very far fetched."
Delisle-Alaku is the vice-president of renewable resources at Nunavik's Makivik Corporation, which represents the Inuit in Quebec.
But scientists and green groups worry that changes in the bears' habitat may soon push them to the brink. In the Arctic, sea ice waxes and wanes with with seasons but in the last decades rising temperatures have caused lower ice levels, according to researchers with the National Snow and Ice Data Center. NSIDC director Mark Serreze told VICE News in January that Arctic summers will be ice free within a century, and possibly within 20 years.
This bodes ill for the bear who use Arctic sea ice to hunt seal in the summer. "Although well adapted to seasonal ice melt, polar bears appear susceptible to deleterious declines in body condition during the lengthening period of summer food deprivation," states a study on the effects of melting sea ice published in the journal Science last summer.
The northern hunt isn't just about selling the bears' fur, however. For many in the north, the hunt is about food.
According to Inuit leaders, polar bear hunts are important to the financial and food security of indigenous traditional communities in a part of Canada where the high cost of living makes hunger and poverty commonplace. In Nunavut, for instance, a 5.5-pound bag of flour cost $13.60 CAD compared to the Canada-wide average of $5.03 CAD, according to the Nunavut Bureau of Statistics. Food and energy costs in the north are often double those in the rest of Canada.
Justin Trudeau's Liberal government has pledged an additional $40 million to the $60-million Nutrition North program, which subsidized food costs.
"Polar bear hunting is one source of nutrition…and it's also an opportunity to generate a little bit of income," said Delisle-Alaku. However, he also noted that the sale of polar bear fur, mostly to China, has been in a long, slow decline as the bears have become emblematic of the threat of climate change.
"It's part of their lives and even if it moves from Appendix II to Appendix I, we're still going to hunt polar bear for food, but it'd be a great loss to the harvesters and us Inuit," James Eetoolook, vice-president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which manages Inuit land claims in the territory told VICE News.
"When it comes to hunting, it's in the Inuit's blood."
Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg