OTTAWA — Canada's environment minister on Thursday listed the polar bear as a species of "special concern," requiring a new strategy to protect the iconic animal to be unveiled within three years.
"Canada is home to two-thirds of the world's polar bear population and we have a unique conservation responsibility to effectively care for them," said Environment Minister Peter Kent.
Listing the polar bear under Canada's Species at Risk Act, he said, will help to protect "this iconic species."
The management plan must aim to alleviate human threats to the polar bear. However, Kent said it would not result in prohibitions on such things as Inuit hunts.
A majority of residents in Canada's far north consulted in 2008 through 2010 opposed listing the bear as endangered, as it still flourished in some parts of the Arctic despite dire warnings it was doomed by climate change.
In Canada, only four of 13 polar bear subpopulations are actually at a high risk of becoming threatened "likely due to climate change or over-harvesting," according to a government report.
These 4,330 out of a total 15,500 polar bears in Canada could see their numbers fall by 30 percent or more within three polar bear generations, or 36 years, due to warming in the western Hudson Bay and southern Beaufort Sea, and unsustainable hunting in Kane Basin and Baffin Bay, it said.
The rest of the populations are projected to increase or remain stable over the coming decades.
Many in the struggling groups show a "declining body condition" and "changes in denning location" linked to decreased availability of sea ice, the government said.
Currently, about 534 polar bears are hunted each year in Canada, according to its figures.
The new management plan is expected to "strengthen and formalize" a conservation strategy, in cooperation with United States, Russia, Norway, and Greenland, presented last month at a meeting in Iqaluit in Canada's far north.