The majestic but vulnerable polar bear has been formally declared a "species of special concern," further driving a wedge between southern Canadians and many resource-dependant northerners.

"Species of concern" is one level below threatened and two levels below endangered under Canada's Species at Risk Act.

The listing under the act requires a comprehensive management plan within three years, feeding some northerners' fears that the already-limited bear hunt will be further restricted.

"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. "Our government is demonstrating leadership in protecting this iconic species.

"Listing the polar bear under the Species at Risk Act represents an important contribution to protecting our environment and the animals that live in it."

Scientists generally agree that polar bear populations have been increasingly threatened as global warming shrinks the Arctic icepack, effectively restricting their normal offshore hunting range.

Environment Canada consulted with provincial and territorial governments, regional wildlife management boards, aboriginals and other stakeholders before making Thursday's declaration.

"In the North, the majority of communities contacted were not in favour of listing the polar bear," said the order-in-council which listed the species.

"While many people in the communities feel climate change is affecting polar bears, they also observed that wildlife populations normally fluctuate and move, and that polar bears are very adaptable," it added.

"Many people report the population to be increasing rather than decreasing and that the polar bears are appearing in different places, particularly in the communities, such that there are strong concerns for public safety."

The government said polar bear populations are at risk of becoming a threatened species in four of the 13 Canadian subpopulations — Western Hudson Bay, Southern Beaufort Sea, Kane Basin and Baffin Bay — "likely due to climate change or over-harvesting."

However, there were "strong feelings" among those consulted in the North that the research is not conclusive. Many claimed the surveys are too limited and too infrequent, the document says.

In southern Canada the vast majority of those expressing opinions supported the move, it said.

The order says the impacts of listing on governments, industries and individuals are expected to be low. And a spokeswoman in Kent's office said "the plan will not result in prohibitions."

The order-in-council added: "The economic evidence presented . . . indicates that the regulatory action is likely to result in net benefits to Canadians."

The best estimates put the polar bear population in Canada at about 15,000.

The government said the management plan will build on its existing National Polar Bear Conservation Strategy, drafted in co-ordination with the United States, Russia, Norway, and Greenland.

The signatory countries allow polar bear hunting by local aboriginals, exercising their traditional rights. Quotas are set by the provincial and territorial governments and the wildlife management boards, which are established by land-claims  agreements.

 About 534 polar bears are killed annually in Canada, 325 of them by Inuit in Nunavut. Some are allocated to a commercial sport hunt which employs Inuit guides and outfitters.

 A single large bear can yield about 200 kilograms of edible meat, which is consumed locally, while pelts recently sold at auction to Russian and Chinese buyers for an average price of $5,600.

"Some subpopulations are over-harvested and current management mostly seeks the maximum sustainable harvest, which may cause declines if population monitoring is inadequate," said the document.

It adds: "The species cannot persist without seasonal sea ice. ... Although there is uncertainty over the overall impact of climate change on the species' distribution and numbers, considerable concern exists over the future of this species in Canada."

A Conservative senator recently proposed replacing the beaver with the polar bear as Canada's national animal.