NEWS: Around the Arctic February 12, 2016 - 8:30 am

Future polar bear lobbying must include Inuit, Nunavut org says

"When people stop trade of any kind... that’s the only source of income for a lot of families"


Environment Canada and Climate Change officials are hoping to create a negotiating team to dissuade the United States Fish and Wildlife Service from insisting on further protection for polar bears and Inuit leaders want to be at the table.

Paul Irngaut, director of wildlife and environment for Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., said Feb. 11 that this could be a test of the new federal government’s commitment to building new relationships with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

“We want to ensure that Inuit are at the table,” Irngaut said.

“They need to be at the table, organizations like Makivik and NTI — especially NTI because Nunavut holds the most polar bears of all the regions and we will be the most affected.”

Irngaut was one of several Canadian delegates on Capitol Hill in Washington this week lobbying American officials to back away from their plan to have polar bears uplisted to an Appendix 1 classification under CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

The U.S. has tried twice to have this done and failed both times and it’s expected the U.S. will try again when the next world wildlife conference of CITES signatories meets in South Africa in September.

Irngaut insisted that any lobbying efforts on Canada’s part must include Inuit delegates to present the Inuit perspective.

An Appendix 1 listing would mean an automatic ban on all international trade of polar bear parts.

Polar bears are already listed as a “threatened” species in Alaska, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) website.

The U.S. FWS defines “threatened” as “an animal or plant species likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

This is different from species such as the blue whale and sea lion which are listed as “endangered” in Alaska, or “an animal or plant species in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

Extinction is a word that Irngaut hears a lot.

While some officials in Washington believe that Canada is doing a decent job managing its polar bear populations, they believe that because of climate change polar bears could still face serious decline in 20 or 30 years.

For that reason, Irngaut said, some American officials are pushing to protect the species now, believing the population will be larger, healthier, and more able to withstand the dramatic impact a warming climate is expected to have on polar bear sea ice hunting environments.

But many Inuit believe that polar bears in the Arctic — certainly some sub-populations at least — are already healthy, so healthy in fact that their high numbers pose a danger to Arviat and other western Hudson Bay communities, Irngaut said.

The Nunavut government recently increased the polar bear harvesting quota for the western Hudson Bay subpopulation by four animals, from 24 to 28.

Arviat South MLA Joe Savikataaq criticized Environment Minister Johnny Mike for that paltry increase, pointing out that the NWMB had recommended the new harvesting quota be increased to 38.

“We tried to emphasize that we have a really strong management system in place in Nunavut,” Irngaut said.

“It’s robust and it can deal with climate change and other factors. Let’s improve the system we already have through the [Nunavut Wildlife Management Board].”

But polar bears have been a political icon for a while, he said, and he’s not hopeful that U.S, wildlife lobbyists will give up their quest to protect polar bears.

Irngaut said Inuit delegates tried to cut through that rhetoric by “putting a human face” on the people who will be affected if wildlife harvesting trade is restricted.

“When we go home, you and me, we open the fridge and there’s food there. But for a lot of families in Nunavut, they don’t have any food in the fridge. When people stop trade of any kind, not only polar bear but seals or what-have-you, that’s the only source of income for a lot of families,” he said.

“And when they talk about uplisting, and they stop trade, they effect a lot of families. We were trying to portray that in our meetings. But I think they’re minds are set based on predictions of what will happen.”