Arviat steps up efforts to keep polar bears out of town
“There are bears coming into town, or trying to come into town, every day”
Arviat wildlife officer Joe Savikataaq Jr. is used to hearing his phone ring at this time of the year — at any given time, day or night.
As polar bear season ramps up in the Kivalliq community, located along the polar bears’ migration route north, Savikataaq Jr. is part of a local team monitoring the polar bears to make sure they’re not causing damage to the community or its residents.
This year has been particularly busy for polar bear traffic in town, said Savikataaq Jr., who said he gets calls for assistance at least a few times each day.
One morning this past week, a call came in from a household along the town’s waterfront where not one, but three polar bears were spotted approaching a dog tied up outside the home.
“They were after some walrus meat that was left out near the dogs,” Savikataaq Jr. said. “So I deterred them towards the water with my ATV, and then used bear bangers to scare them off.”
Once the polar bears are chased north of town, they usually continue on their migration, Savikataaq Jr. said, although some will come back.
“It’s been pretty steady,” he said. “There are bears coming into town, or trying to come into town, every day.”
So much so that the hamlet and the Government of Nunavut has stepped up its efforts this year to keep the bears out of the community, and to keep its residents safe.
For the fourth year running, the World Wildlife Fund Canada is funding the position of a polar bear monitor, local hunter Leo Ikhakik, who patrols the community from 4:00 p.m. to midnight every day on the lookout for bears.
And this year, the GN’s environment department hired three more relief workers to take a midnight patrol shift.
“So we’re covered now around the clock,” Savikataaq Jr. said.
The polar bears are drawn to Arviat in hopes of finding something to eat, so meat caches are an obviously lure. Savikataaq Jr. said it’s hard to control where residents leave their country foods, although he has collected some meat to store in places the polar bears can’t access.
Because the community’s dump is also a big draw for hungry polar bears, Savikataaq Jr. has set up a bear trap he designed this year between the dump and the community.
Set up on a trailer, Savikataaq Jr. baits the tunnel trap with seal meat.
Once the polar bear walks in, a gate drops, trapping the bear inside. From there, Savikataaq Jr. drives the animal north of the community and releases it, where it can continue on its migration.
Soon, he adds, he’ll experiment with “luring stations” set up outside the community: cylinders filled with water and meat frozen together, with hopes the polar bears will focus their energy there.
So far this year, Savikataaq Jr. said local efforts seem to be working; there have been no dog fatalities — a polar bear killed a sled dog last year — no human-polar bear encounters and no polar bears killed.
But some believe more polar bears should be killed.
Savikataaq Jr.’s father, Arviat South MLA Joe Savikataaq, has twice made calls to the GN to increase quotas for the polar bear hunt along the western coast of Hudson Bay.
Noting the large number coming through Arviat each year, Savikataaq wants to see the quota bumped from 24 polar bears to 45.
But Nunavut’s environment minister Johnny Mike told the legislature Oct. 23 that the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board won’t decide on any new quotas until early 2015.
The polar bear quota for the community of Arviat this year is eight polar bears, which will be handed out via a lottery system starting Oct. 30.
In the meantime, Savikataaq Jr. warns residents to be on guard when travelling in and around the community.
“Keep to lighted areas,” he said. “And people — kids especially -— should avoid going out at night.”