Last year, amid much media hoopla, polar bears (Ursus maritimus) received protected status under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. One aspect of that protection is that American hunters, who often travel to Canada to hunt polar bears, can no longer  bring their trophies into the U.S.

Canada considers polar bears to be a "species of special concern," and has quotas on hunts, which remain both legal and profitable. Quotas vary by province and polar bear population area -- for example, this year hunters are allowed to harvest 105 polar bears in the Baffin Bay region. About 60 percent of the world's 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears live in Canada.

Those hunts could soon be affected by the international community. Later this month, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement governing international trade in specimens of endangered or threatened animals and plants, is set to discuss whether to ban the export and import of polar bear-hunt trophies among all of the convention's 175 signatory nations, including the U.S., Canada and China. A decision could result in a ban of trophy exports, which would effectively end polar bear sport hunting in Canada.

The Canadian Wildlife Service, which implements CITES regulations on behalf of the Canadian government, has a major part in that decision. According to a report in The Nunatsiaq News, the agency is considering several options, among them reducing or ending sport-hunting harvests in up to four different polar bear population areas.

The Nanutsiaq News says that sports hunting of polar bears in the Nunavut province alone has been estimated to pull in profits of C$2.9 ($2.4 million) annually.

And here's where it gets interesting: hunting quotas are actually established for Inuit communities, who are allowed to hunt polar bears for sustenance, but can sell a small number of their hunting "tags" to non-indigenous sports hunters, who often pay upwards of $30,000 per hunt, according to a report by Canwest News Service. If CITES bans the international transport of polar bear trophies, it would not end hunting of polar bears in Canada, but it would cut off a major revenue source for local indigenous communities.CITES decisions, however, are not supposed to be based on socio-economic conditions.

Worldwide, polar bears are considered a vulnerable species by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. *Populations stand at an estimated 20,000 to 25,000.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

*Clarification (posted 4/24/09): Because of controversy over the historical number of polar bears, we have deleted part of the sentence marked with an asterisk.