Arctic Polar bears Face Uncertain Future

Vancouver Sun, Bear Hunting Magazine

One polar bear bolted past a pair of teenage girls heading home from school. Another helped itself to caribou behind a pickup truck. People peering out their windows found the bears wandering in their yards.

No one likes to see that, says Joe Savikataaq, the conservation officer in the Nunavut community of Arviat, on the west coast of Hudson Bay, which has never had a bear season quite like this winter's.

For the first time ever, hunters in Arviat were asked not to hunt polar bears in a bid to help conserve what is said to be a dwindling population. Then the community, home to about 2,200 people, was invaded by bears sauntering up the coast.

It was like a highway of hungry bears, says biologist Andrew Derocher of the University of Alberta, who sees the close encounters in Arviat as a sign of the challenges ahead.

The growing problems with the iconic Arctic predator will take centre stage at a stakeholders meeting Environment Minister Jim Prentice has called for Jan. 16 in Winnipeg. He's inviting the Inuit, scientists, wildlife management boards and government officials to "discuss solutions that will help ensure a future for the polar bear.

There are now about 22,000 polar bears in the wild, 60 to 70 per cent of them in Canada's north. While many feel this number will go down with the "global warming," in the meantime northerners have their work cut out for them managing the estimated 15,500 polar bears currently in Canada.

Many of the sub-populations appear to be steady. But bears in western Hudson Bay and Baffin Bay are believed to be in decline, and they are the source of increasing conflict, in the form of encounters in communities like Arviat and growing controversy over hunting quotas.

Inuit hunters argue their traditional knowledge, or Inuit Qaujimajatuquangit (IQ), gives them a better sense of the bear population in Baffin Bay, between Nunavut and Greenland, than the numbers biologists and environmental groups are using to push for cuts in the hunting quota.

The hunters, who say the numbers are outdated, have been threatening to ignore any lower quota imposed on them and start "free hunting like we used to."

The Nunavut government and its wildlife management board, which considers both IQ and scientific knowledge, has so far sided with the Inuit hunters and did not follow the advice from its wildlife staff to cut the Baffin Bay quota from 105 to 64 this winter.

The more southerly bear population in western Hudson Bay, which includes Arviat, is even more at risk. Surveys show the size of population dropped 22 per cent between 1987 and 2004, which prompted the Nunavut government to severely restrict the hunt. Its wildlife management board slashed the hunting quota for the region to eight bears for 2008-2009, down from 38 bears last year and 56 the year before.

The quota is so low that the local wildlife boards decided to save the tags for killing eight bears in emergency situations. So there is no polar bear hunting in the western Hudson Bay this year, says Savikataaq, a first for the region.

That has put an end not only to a long tradition but also to a lucrative business for the isolated communities. Inuit outfitters can bring in $20,000 to $40,000 per bear when guiding southern hunters.

People dont like it, but thats the way it goes, Savikataaq says of this year's eight-bear quota that was almost filled before the bears even got out on the ice this year. Six problem bears have already been killed along western Hudson Bay, four in Arviat in November.

Ive never seen them quite so concentrated, says Savikataaq, a veteran conservation officer who was born in Arviat and has been scaring away bears for 25 years.

So many bears were roaming around town in November he was called out about 50 times over a two-week period to chase them off with his arsenal of exploding bullets and rubber slugs. But the bears were not easily deterred, and kept coming back.

They are not the only polar bears doing strange and unexpected things, says Derocher, who has been tracking polar bears by satellite for years. We now have Canadian bears all the way over in Russia, he says. Five of the 29 bears his team collared in the Beaufort Sea in 2007 and 2008 decamped and made the incredible trek west. Theyre all the way over in Wrangel Island (off the northeastern coast of Russia), says Derocher.

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