Photo of a polar bear

Photo: Dr. Martyn Obbard

Protecting and recovering species at risk in Ontario

Species at risk recovery is a key part of protecting Ontario’s biodiversity. The Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA) is the Government of Ontario’s legislative commitment to protecting and recovering species at risk and their habitats.

Under the ESA, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (the Ministry) must ensure that a recovery strategy is prepared for each species that is listed as endangered or threatened. A recovery strategy provides science-based advice to government on what is required to achieve recovery of a species.

Within nine months after a recovery strategy is prepared, the ESA requires the Ministry to publish a statement summarizing the government’s intended actions and priorities in response to the recovery strategy. The response statement is the government’s policy response to the scientific advice provided in the recovery strategy. In addition to the strategy, the government response statement considered (where available) input from stakeholders, other jurisdictions, Indigenous communities and organizations, and members of the public. It reflects the best available local and scientific knowledge, including Traditional Ecological Knowledge, at this time and may be adapted if new information becomes available. In implementing the actions in the response statement, the ESA allows the Ministry to determine what is feasible, taking into account social and economic factors.

The Recovery Strategy for the Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) in Ontario was completed on December 7, 2011. To comprehensively consider and address the complexities associated with the protection and recovery of Polar Bear, the Ministry took additional time to prepare this GRS. During this time, the Ministry held multiple engagement sessions with stakeholders, met with other levels of government including Indigenous communities, and facilitated discussions with interested First Nation communities. All recommendations provided in the recovery strategy, advice provided through consultation and engagement, and additional jurisdictional, scientific and economic information were considered in developing this government response statement. This GRS identifies actions that are considered to be appropriate and necessary for the protection and recovery of the species.

The Polar Bear or Wabusk in Cree is the largest species of bear globally and is among the largest carnivores found on land. Males can weigh up to 800 kg with females generally weighing less than 400 kg. The Polar Bear has translucent hair that appears white, allowing it to blend in with its snowy surroundings.

Protecting and recovering Polar Bear

Polar Bear is listed as a threatened species under the ESA, which protects both the animal and its habitat. The ESA prohibits harm or harassment of the species and damage or destruction of its habitat without authorization. Such authorization would require that conditions established by the Ministry be met.

Polar Bears are found throughout the circumpolar Arctic region of the northern hemisphere. As a result, the protection and recovery of the species requires collaboration and management at both the national and international scale. Polar Bears can be found in parts of Canada, the U.S., Greenland, Russia, and Norway. Thirteen of the nineteen global subpopulations occur either fully or partially in Canada, with the Canadian population of Polar Bear currently estimated at 15,000 individuals. Ontario Polar Bears are the most southern breeding in the world and are estimated to be between 900 and 1000 individuals. In Ontario, their range extends along the Hudson and James Bay coasts, and the majority of the provincial population is made up of individuals from the Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation with a very small amount from the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation in the northwestern corner of the province.

Polar Bears depend on sea ice to carry out important life processes and are generally limited to marine environments where sea ice occurs most of the year. Polar Bears can be found on the sea ice from late fall until early summer carrying out critical life functions such as feeding and mating. Pregnant females often use permafrost features inland from the coast to den for the winter. Polar Bears in Ontario construct maternal dens in palsas (elevated permafrost features), treed areas and in the sides of peat banks and gravel ridges. Polar Bears depend primarily on Ringed Seals as well as Bearded and Harbour Seals as a food source, collectively comprising up to 95% of their diet. For four to five months during the ice-free season, the bears are forced onto land where they largely depend on the fat reserves that they accumulated throughout the winter.

Photo of the Polar Bear units in Canada

Click to view a larger version of the Polar Bear Management Units map

Polar Bears are culturally and economically significant for the coastal Cree First Nations communities in Ontario. Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution Act, 1982 recognizes and affirms the existing Aboriginal and Treaty rights of Aboriginal peoples, who include the First Nation, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada. Depending on the terms of a particular treaty and the historical evidence, these rights may include harvesting Polar Bear for food, social and ceremonial purposes. In Ontario, First Nation communities along the Hudson and James Bay coasts are members of Treaty 9, and have the right to harvest Polar Bears. Currently, harvest levels of Polar Bears in Ontario are voluntarily established through co-management agreements between the First Nation communities and provincial or territorial governments, and are considered sustainable. These levels require ongoing evaluation to ensure sustainability based on changes in threats and global population levels.

The greatest threat to Polar Bears is the alteration of their habitat due to climate change. Climate change is defined as any significant change in long-term weather patterns. Global warming describes the recent rise in the average global temperature. The rate of global warming over the last 50 years is almost double the rate of warming over the previous 100 years. Worldwide, 14 of the last 15 years have been the warmest on record. For Polar Bears, warmer temperatures are resulting in changes to terrestrial denning sites, including the collapse of permafrost features such as palsas, and decreased duration and distribution of sea ice which makes it increasingly difficult for the bears to efficiently catch seals. The species' reliance on terrestrial areas is expected to increase with earlier melting of sea ice in summer and later forming of sea ice in fall. This change will increase stress levels in the bears and result in decreased body condition from depletion of their fat reserves. This also makes them more susceptible to other threats such as increased human-bear interactions, changes in land and sea uses by humans, pollutants, and potential unsustainable harvest.

The Polar Bear’s scientific name, Ursus martimus, means "sea bear" as they are the only bear that depends upon the marine environment for survival.

Currently, the impacts of these threats are being observed in a significant reduction in the bears' body condition although at this time, population numbers in Ontario remain relatively stable. Nevertheless, climate change models predict that without significantly halting climate change, Polar Bears are likely to be extirpated from Ontario within 40 to 100 years. It is uncertain whether it will be possible in the long-term to retain a Polar Bear population in Ontario given that the Ontario population is at the southern extent of the species' global range and that it is the shared global responsibility of governments and citizens to effectively address the primary threat of climate change. The focus of protection and recovery activities for Polar Bear in Ontario will focus on addressing climate change, collaborating with Indigenous communities and organizations, continued cooperative work in science, research and monitoring, and Ontario’s continued role working in collaboration with other jurisdictions for the global protection and recovery of Polar Bear.

Government’s recovery goal

The government’s goal for the recovery of the Polar Bear is to extend the length of time that the species persists in Ontario to the extent possible, and to collaborate with other jurisdictions, including Indigenous communities and organizations, to increase the likelihood of the species' persistence within Canada.


Protecting and recovering species at risk is a shared responsibility. No single agency or organization has the knowledge, authority or financial resources to protect and recover all of Ontario’s species at risk. Successful recovery requires inter-governmental co-operation and the involvement of many individuals, organizations and communities. In developing the government response statement, the Ministry considered what actions are feasible for the government to lead directly and what actions are feasible for the government to support its conservation partners to undertake.

The government endorses the following actions as being necessary for the protection and recovery of Polar Bear. Support for the implementation of these actions may be provided through funding, agreements, permits (including conditions) and advisory services.

Actions identified as "high" will be given priority consideration for government funding under the ESA. The government will focus its support on these high-priority actions over the next five years. Annual priority actions for government support across all species will be established and communicated to encourage collaboration and reduce duplication of efforts.

Focus area: Climate change mitigation and habitat management

Objective: Work collaboratively to maintain suitable habitat conditions for Polar Bear in Ontario, to the extent possible.

Effectively addressing the threat of climate change is a global priority and addressing this threat requires coordinated actions at provincial, national, and global scales, from governments, organizations and individuals. The Ontario government has demonstrated leadership through the development of the Climate Change Strategy released in 2015 supported by a Climate Change Action Plan, first released in spring 2016, and the development of a provincial cap and trade program. The Ontario government set out a series of actions in the first Climate Change Action Plan released in 2007 that helped the province achieve the ambitious goal of reducing Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions by 6% below 1990 levels by 2014. Continued actions are underway to meet further greenhouse gas emissions targets set by the Ontario government: 15% below 1990 levels by 2020, 37% below by 2030, and 80% below by 2050. The Ontario government’s Climate Change Strategy identifies additional changes required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and builds on the previous work completed in Ontario. Some examples of this include: developing a land use carbon inventory to allow Ontario to assess the potential of agriculture, forestry and other land uses, such as wetlands and grasslands, to emit, remove and store carbon; and developing a forest carbon policy framework to explore the role of managed Crown forests in storing carbon. Only through collective action can we help to reduce the impacts of climate change. Taking action to mitigate the impacts of climate change will help to retain the sea ice and permafrost features that Polar Bears depend on for their food source and dens.

Large portions of Polar Bear habitat in Ontario are protected within Polar Bear (Wabusk) Provincial Park. This 2.4 million hectare park along the Hudson Bay coast provides protection for approximately 70% of the Polar Bear summer retreat habitat and an estimated third of the denning sites currently used by the entire Southern Hudson Bay population. Denning sites that are not dependent on permafrost are more common inside the park and these could potentially increase in importance with warming temperatures. Under the ESA, habitat is protected through either the general habitat definition or through species-specific regulated habitat. Under the general habitat definition of the ESA, habitat protection is provided to the areas the species depends on directly and indirectly to carry out its life processes. This includes areas that support life processes necessary for the species to survive and reproduce such as breeding, hibernation, feeding, resting, and migration. Section 10 of the ESA prohibits the damage or destruction of the habitat of species listed on the Species at Risk in Ontario (SARO) List as endangered or threatened; this prohibition applies equally to habitat protected through the general habitat definition and through regulated habitat. A species-specific habitat regulation is not being developed at this time given that climate change is the primary threat to Polar Bears, development pressures within the range of Polar Bear are currently minimal, and a great deal of the species' habitat occurs on provincially protected and First Nations' lands. Polar Bear habitat will continue to be protected under the ESA through the definition of general habitat.

The Ontario government is also committed to addressing the potential impacts on Polar Bear habitat from development activities through land use planning and supporting the development of best management practices. A Far North Land Use Strategy for Ontario is currently being finalized. The Strategy will assist in the preparation of land use plans and guide the integration of matters that are beyond the geographic scope of the individual plans. It will contain guidance for planning teams on how to account for the needs of species at risk when preparing a plan. Currently, there is limited development activity occurring within the Ontario range of Polar Bears. However, with increasing temperatures and economic pressures there may be a corresponding increase in natural resource development such as mining, wind farms, or hydroelectric power. Developing approaches to reduce the effects of natural resource developments could be important in maintaining suitable Polar Bear habitat. The Ontario government is committed to working jointly with First Nations to develop community based land use plans in the Far North of Ontario. Through community based land use planning, First Nations and Ontario work together to decide what areas in the Far North are open for development and what areas should be protected. Wildlife, including Polar Bear, as well as climate change and cumulative effects will be themes considered in the planning process.


  1. (High) Work with communities and all sectors to implement, monitor and report on progress towards Ontario’s Climate Change Strategy and Climate Change Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (government led)
  2. Work jointly with First Nations communities in the Far North through community based land use planning to consider wildlife, including Polar Bear, and identify community and broad-scale interests that reflect the complex nature of the ecology, culture and economics of the Far North. (government led and government supported)
  3. Develop, implement, and update, as needed, best management practices to reduce the potential impacts of development activities, such as mineral exploration, on Polar Bears and their habitat. (government supported)
  4. Protect the Polar Bear and its habitat through the ESA. (government led)

Focus area: Monitoring and research

Objective: Monitor trends in Polar Bear populations and implement actions to manage the detected impacts.

Having sound science and information on Polar Bear populations is key to making evidence-based decisions on how best to manage the species. Scientific information, including Traditional Ecological Knowledge and community knowledge, informs our understanding of Polar Bear and collectively this information provides a more comprehensive picture of how the species is doing and how we can address threats to its persistence. Continuing and expanding monitoring and research efforts will help to provide an early warning of changes occurring that may trigger the need for additional management actions.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has a long history of working with external partners to increase our knowledge of Ontario’s Polar Bear population. This work has included conducting aerial surveys to estimate population abundance and more intensive sampling using live capture and radio-telemetry approaches. These studies provide important information on the population’s movement patterns, health and body condition, habitat use, and demographic structure (e.g., age classes and sex distribution). In addition, coastal Cree First Nation communities and academic partners have conducted studies to document historic and current patterns of Polar Bear movement and behaviour in Ontario that have contributed to our collective knowledge.

The Ontario government is committed to continuing to support efforts that increase our knowledge on Polar Bear through science, including Traditional Ecological Knowledge. This includes conducting an aerial survey of the population every five years to monitor trends in abundance, performing additional analysis on Polar Bear data particularly related to body condition, expanding intensive survey efforts to include bears in James Bay, and supporting the development of community based monitoring programs. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry carried out these aerial surveys in 2016 to obtain up to date information on Polar Bears in Ontario. To allow for improved integration of different types of information in management decision-making it is important to establish comparable methodology, to collaborate on studies across jurisdictions, and to develop processes for improved information sharing. Recommendations provided in the research article "A Circumpolar Monitoring Framework for Polar Bears" by Vongraven et al (2012) will help to inform these monitoring efforts in Ontario.

Another important area of science that will help to inform future Polar Bear management actions is that of climate projection modelling. Through the Climate Change Strategy, the Ontario government committed to establishing a climate change modelling collaborative for climate data. Open access to standardized and wide-ranging climate information will help both public and private sectors make informed and evidence-based decisions. This initiative may also help to refine assessments on the probability of Polar Bear persistence in Ontario and inform future management decisions.

As Polar Bear health and body condition decline, the potential for negative human-bear interactions increases. A decline in body condition is associated with lack of nutrition in or abundance in the Polar Bear diet. This decline has been used as an indicator in the State of Ontario’s Biodiversity 2010 report and State of Ontario’s Biodiversity 2015 report. As a result of decline in access to food, Polar Bears may travel further afield to locate food sources and may enter local communities in their search for food. Planning for how to reduce the frequency and impact of these human-bear interactions is an important component of Polar Bear protection and recovery. Community based plans will support the ability to effectively address human-bear interactions in a community-specific way.


Primary Focus:

Secondary Focus:

  1. (High) Develop and collaboratively implement a Polar Bear science program that assesses and examines correlations between the following:
    • population distribution, size, and trends
    • reproductive and survival rates
    • body condition and health, including levels of contaminants
    • timing of freeze-up and thaw of sea ice
    • use of maternal denning and resting habitat
    • changes in the Polar Bear diet
    • potential impacts of research methods on individuals.
      (government led and government supported)
  2. (High) Support coastal Cree First Nation communities in the establishment and implementation of a community based Polar Bear monitoring program. This could include collecting information on:
    • location, abundance, and body condition of encountered Polar Bears;
    • human-caused mortality including the cause of death (e.g., harvest, defence, euthanization) and basic biological information of the impacted bear (e.g., sex, size, and condition); and,
    • Traditional Ecological Knowledge on the species' distribution and habitat use. (government supported).
  3. (High) Develop, implement and evaluate, as appropriate, community based plans to reduce the frequency and impact of human-bear interactions. This may include:
    • reducing attractants and access of the bears to communities, hunt camps, landfills, and development sites;
    • monitoring the proximity of polar bears to communities using remote sensing; and,
    • increasing awareness of non-lethal methods to protect people and property through educational activities. (government supported)
  4. Collaborate with coastal Cree First Nation communities to share information on Polar Bear knowledge and management and seek opportunities for greater collaboration on management activities. (government led)
  5. Contribute to refinements of climate change projection modelling to inform assessments on the probability of Polar Bear persistence in Ontario and future decision-making. (government supported)

Focus area: Inter-jurisdictional management

Objective: Collaborate with other jurisdictions to increase the likelihood of the persistence of Polar Bears in Ontario and Canada.

Globally, 19 subpopulations of Polar Bears have been identified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Polar Bear Specialist Group, 13 of which occur within Canada. Ontario Polar Bears are primarily from the Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation although a small portion are from the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation in the northwestern corner of the province. Since Polar Bears can travel widely within the subpopulation areas and also between them, collaboration with other jurisdictions that share these subpopulations will be critical for their recovery. This includes the federal government, Manitoba, Nunavut, Québec, coastal Cree First Nation communities, Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board, Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, and Makivik Corporation. Ontario does not have jurisdiction of the sea ice and seal populations that Polar Bears depend on for survival, highlighting the critical importance of working with neighbouring jurisdictions and the federal government.

Several committees have been created to support inter-jurisdictional collaboration on Polar Bear science and management. The Polar Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN was established in 1968 and includes representatives from all countries that have Polar Bears within their jurisdiction. This group meets every 3 to 5 years and plays a key role in the global coordination, synthesis, and distribution of scientific information to support informed management decision making. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a legally binding, international conservation agreement between governments created in 1973 to ensure that international trade of wild animal specimens, including Polar Bears, and plants does not threaten the survival of species. Polar Bear is included in Appendix II of CITES which allows for commercial international trade under strictly regulated conditions. In Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada is the lead agency responsible for implementing CITES and works together with the provincial and territorial governments to support this international agreement.

In 1969, the Polar Bear Administrative Committee (PBAC) was established to provide a national forum for collaboration on the management of Polar Bears across Canadian jurisdictions. This committee also ensures alignment with the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and their Habitat, which was signed by all member countries in 1973. In addition, the Polar Bear Technical Committee was established in 1970 to provide technical advice to PBAC related to Polar bear research, harvest and population trends, and recommended management actions. Both PBAC and the Polar Bear Technical Committee now meet at least once every year and members of the committees communicate regularly and produce reports highlighting the status of Polar Bears within Canada, current threats, new research activities, and management decisions.

The National Polar Bear Conservation Strategy for Canada, produced by Environment and Climate Change Canada, provides an overarching framework for a coordinated national approach to management across Canadian jurisdictions. The actions within this government response statement demonstrate Ontario’s commitment to the national objectives and align with the direction in the national strategy. The Ontario government remains committed to working through inter-jurisdictional committees to enable coordinated approaches to research and management across the range of Polar Bears. Coordinating efforts and sharing knowledge on the effects of climate change and the status of Polar Bear subpopulations is of paramount importance to effectively protecting and recovering Polar Bears in Ontario, and across the Canadian range.

The responsibility for sustainably managing harvest levels of the Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation of Polar Bears is shared between the governments of Ontario, Nunavut, and Québec and the associated Indigenous communities. In Ontario, a subsistence harvest of Polar Bears is only allowed by Treaty 9 members from communities along the Hudson and James Bay coasts. A voluntary quota of 30 bears per year was established in 1976 through an informal agreement between the Ontario government and the coastal Cree First Nation communities. Since the 1990s, each year an average of approximately eight bears have been harvested, although in recent years this number has decreased. Since Ontario’s Polar Bears can potentially be harvested in Nunavut or Québec, it is in the collective best interest of all parties to cooperate in establishing annual allowable harvest levels for the entire Southern Hudson Bay population. In Ontario, Québec and Nunavut, the harvest of Polar Bears is managed through co-management agreements between the governments and Indigenous communities. In 2014, a voluntary, combined quota of three was established for Ontario and Québec Cree communities for the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 seasons. Several meetings have been held between governments and Cree and Inuit hunters from each jurisdiction to discuss current population levels, health and sustainable harvest levels. The Ontario government is committed to continuing to work collaboratively with other governments, including Cree and Inuit organizations, and wildlife management boards to ensure harvest levels remain sustainable in the long term.


  1. Participate on inter-jurisdictional committees to contribute to a national approach for collaboration and coordination of Polar Bear monitoring and management including the:
    • Polar Bear Administrative Committee; and,
    • Polar Bear Technical Committee. (government led)
  2. Work collaboratively with other governments including Cree and Inuit communities and organizations and wildlife management boards to establish, manage, and monitor sustainable harvest levels for the Southern Hudson bay Polar Bear population. (government led)

Implementing actions

Financial support for the implementation of actions may be available through the Species at Risk Stewardship Program. Conservation partners are encouraged to discuss project proposals related to the actions in this response statement with the Ministry. The Ministry can also advise if any authorizations under the ESA or other legislation may be required to undertake the project.

Implementation of the actions may be subject to changing priorities across the multitude of species at risk, available resources and the capacity of partners to undertake recovery activities. Where appropriate, the implementation of actions for multiple species will be co-ordinated across government response statements.

Reviewing progress

The ESA requires the Ministry to conduct a review of progress towards protecting and recovering a species not later than five years from the publication of this response statement. The review will help identify if adjustments are needed to achieve the protection and recovery of Polar Bear.


We would like to thank all those who participated in the development of the Recovery Strategy for Polar Bear (Ursus maritmus) in Ontario for their dedication to protecting and recovering species at risk.

For additional information

The government response statement for Polar Bear is available in PDF format upon request. Please email PDF requests to