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The world's largest land carnivore, a male polar bear can reach two to three metres in length and weigh between 300-800 kilograms. Adult females are smaller and can weigh between 150-400 kg.
Polar bears are found throughout the circumpolar North. The majority of bears live on sea ice around Canada’s Arctic Islands. The Northwest Territories (NWT) shares three sub-populations of polar bears with neighbouring jurisdictions. These are:
- Southern Beaufort Sea, ~1500 bears
- Northern Beaufort Sea, ~1200 bears
- Viscount Melville Sound, ~200 bears
Polar bears are as comfortable on land as they are in water and are quite agile in either environment. They follow the ice. In spring, polar bears can be found on the inhospitable land-fast ice and coastal pack ice where they prey primarily on ringed and bearded seals. They are carnivorous bears and meat makes up the majority of their diet. Polar bears are solitary hunters and feed primarily on seals, as well as walrus, whales, fish, and birds.
Once the ice melts in summer, polar bears spend several months on land. Reproductively active females spend the winter in dens they construct by digging into snowdrifts, usually on land but occasionally on the sea ice. Female polar bears may return to the same denning area every year. Males may also den but only during the harshest part of winter, usually in late January and February. Denning sites and spring feeding areas are important habitats for polar bears.
Polar bears were internationally protected in 1976 under the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears. This agreement requires governments of all signing nations to manage the bears according to “sound conservation practices” and to conduct research related to the conservation and management of polar bears.
Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), any international shipment of polar bears or their parts requires a permit.
Canada is home to about 16,000 polar bears, which is approximately two-thirds of the world’s total estimated population of 26,000 (95% Cl: 22,000-31,000) individuals. The global population is divided into 19 subpopulations, of which 13 are managed or co-managed by Canada. Over 90 percent of the polar bears in Canada occur in two of Canada’s northernmost territories: Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.