But both Inuit leaders and scientists said Thursday the fight isn't over and Canada might have to make some changes before the issue resurfaces.
"It's a good day for Inuit hunters," said Andrew Derocher, a polar bear expert at the University of Alberta. "But we're going to be right back here in three years."
Delegates to the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species defeated a motion to forbid all such trade in polar bear parts. The motion, backed by the United States and Russia, would have placed bear hides, teeth, heads or any part of the animal in the same category as elephant ivory.
Although U.S. officials had been confident of success, European Union countries abstained en masse instead of supporting the move. That brought support for the motion under the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
"It was relief and it was confirmation that the world agrees with what the Inuit of Canada are doing," said Terry Audla of Inuit Kanatami Tapirisat, Canada's national Inuit group. Audla is in Bangkok, where the meeting is taking place, and was actively lobbying delegates before the vote.
The U.S. and Russia, with the support of groups such as Humane Society International, the Natural Resources Defence Council and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, had argued that allowing Canada to continue trading in the bears was contributing to more hunting at a time when their sea ice habitat is shrinking because of climate change. The Russians added that the Canadian trade makes it easier for poachers in Russia by allowing them to disguise their kills as legal bears from Canada.
But Canada — along with Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, influential scientific bodies and other NGOs — said the Canadian hunt is sustainable and that the real threat to the bears is from climate change, not trade.
Although the world sided with Canada this time, Derocher notes support is slipping.
In 2010, the last time the U.S. attempted to get CITES to ban polar bears, the European Union voted in a single bloc with Canada. This time, after major European countries — including the United Kingdom and Germany — said they opposed the hunt, the EU simply sat on its hands.
The Polar Bear Specialist Group, the world's top scientific adviser on the bears, is also shifting.
"We had split position on this," said Derocher. "You compare this to just three years ago when it was a unanimous position, we're now seeing that position shift."
Derocher said Canada has been given a three-year reprieve to adjust its management practices to make them more responsive to the rapidly deteriorating conditions of the bear's habitat.
Audla said those practices are already responsive. He points to quotas in the Western Hudson Bay area, where the number of bears which hunters were allowed to kill went from 56 to eight to 24 in three successive years, depending on conditions.
The other controversial population, in Baffin Bay, is nearing the end of a three-year survey. Hunting quotas will be based on those results, Audla said. He added he's already planning to work with other countries with polar bears to get them on board with Canada's management system.
Still, Derocher said Canada will have to up its game in the face of growing global concern about the bears. Management practices developed 20 years ago, before climate change really started to bite, just don't cut it any more.
"It's just not the way it used to be," he said. "You have to move to a more precautionary management approach."
But Derocher said as sea ice continues to shrink, pressure on the trade in polar bears will increase until it's banned.
"The bar for Canada is going to increase every three years until polar bears are listed. If we step our management protocols, we will at least be able to maintain the international trade for some years to come."
Audla said he hopes the U.S. and Russia are ready to listen. But he's aware that international scrutiny of Canada's bear management isn't likely to let up.
"I hope I don't do this again in three years, but we'll see."