WASHINGTON - The House gave its approval Monday to a U.S.-Russia treaty to help protect polar bears from overhunting and other threats to their survival.
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The House bill puts into effect a 2000 treaty that sets quotas on polar bear hunting by Native populations in the two countries and establishes a bilateral commission to analyze how best to sustain the polar bear habitat. It passed by voice vote.
The Polar Bear Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union estimates the polar bear population in the Arctic at 20,000 to 25,000, and projects a 30 percent decline in that number over the next 45 years. Climatic warming that melts the bears' sea ice habitat is regarded as the main threat, but pollution and overhunting are other major concerns.
On the United States side, only subsistence hunting by Native peoples is legal, but there is an illegal market in Asia for gall bile and gall bladders from polar bears and other bears because of their uses in medicine.
Margaret Williams, Anchorage-based director of the Bering Sea Ecoregion Program of the World Wildlife Fund, said there has been no permissible hunting in Russia since 1956, but illegal hunting on the Russian side is a real concern. She added that polar bears commonly breed on Russian territory.
"In order for us to think about managing and conserving our polar bears we must have Russian cooperation," she said. "This mechanism is really quite important."
The bill would prohibit the possession, sale and purchase of any polar bear or bear part in violation of the treaty, and it would provide enforcement authority for violations.
"Without these provisions the future of polar bear populations in Russia are very much in jeopardy," said Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz.
The House bill, which must be reconciled with a similar Senate bill approved in June, approves the spending of $2 million a year through 2010 for the polar bear program.
"This bill will simultaneously support the conservation of U.S. and Russian polar bear populations and the historical traditions of indigenous peoples in the Arctic region," Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the bill's Senate sponsor, said in a statement.
The legislation also contains changes to the Marine Mammal Protection Act that direct the Commerce Department to develop a program of "nonlethal removal and control" of sea mammals such as seals and sea lions that are depleting fishing resources. The department is also asked to set up a fishing gear development program to reduce the incidental taking of marine mammals.