Influx of bears a nuisance across Nunavut

Inuit hunters report animals are healthy and well fed

By CHRIS WINDEYER

IGLOOLIK — As the world hears tales of polar bears pushed to the brink of starvation by the thinning ice caused by climate change, Theo Ikummaq says the story told by Nunavut hunters is much different.

Ikummaq, a wildlife officer for 28 years who’s travelled on the land around Igloolik since the 1950s, says polar bears are indeed coming closer to human settlements in search of food, but they’re not skinny or sickly.

Instead, hunters in the region are reporting well-fed bears and mothers travelling with multiple cubs, another sign that bears are having no trouble finding food. The male population is also up, he said.

“They [hunters] are guaranteed to be seeing polar bears at camp,” Ikummaq said. “This much we know now.”

“Twenty years back, you went caribou hunting, there was never a time you saw a bear. But in the last six years, that’s when polar bear-human encounters have occurred more constantly.”

Increasing reports of damaged property caused by polar bears has the Nunavut environment department eyeing a program that would help hunters create bear-proofed cabins and food caches and reduce the number of encounters with humans.

Though a spate of bear sightings in Arviat made headlines this past fall, Sarah Medill, a wildlife deterrence specialist with the environment department, said it’s a problem throughout the territory.

“Basically bears are coming into communities and they’re getting access to meat and sealskins,” Medill said. “When bears find food they tend to want to come back to food.”

Bears in search of food have also been approaching hunters out on the land. And around Igloolik, they’ve been getting into meat caches near the community, Medill said.

In addition to the safety risk posed by bears becoming more comfortable around humans, hunters also face economic losses.

They’ve spent a lot of time and money hunting, making the loss of meat to bears frustrating. They also have to spend time and money fixing cabins ripped open by marauding bears.

Medill said polar bears can even damage cabins that don’t have any meat stashed in them when they learn that “structures equal food.”

That’s already starting to happen, Ikummaq said, confounding the theory that thinning sea ice is making it harder for bears to hunt and keeping them on the land longer.

But in Igloolik, the sea ice was around all summer, yet bears continued to come into camp sites. “I think the bears are getting used to humans being present and that there’s a food source whenever there’s a human about.”

Medill has been working with hunters and trappers groups to develop community bear plans for each hamlet, but she’s also heard that Nunavummiut don’t have access to some of the equipment that can keep bears.

So while the details haven’t been fully worked out, the environment department hopes to establish a program to make it easier for hunters to get common bear deterrents like cracker shells, rubber bullets and even electrified fences.

The GN may act as a distributor for that kind of equipment, since things like cracker shells can be difficult to ship by plane, since they are considered to be dangerous goods.

Ikummaq said Igloolik hunters have also experimented with laying wire mesh over buried caches of igunaaq after polar bears began digging up the buried stores of walrus meat.

And he hopes to get some electrified fences next season as another way to protect meat caches.

But it’s most effective to prevent polar bears from getting into human food in the first place, Medill said. Something as simple as the presence of dogs or snowmobiles can be enough to keep bears away.

“It is going to be 10 times harder to chase and keep away than a bear that has come into an area accidentally or through its regular travels.”

Medill said the proposal should go before the legislative assembly this spring.

In the meantime, she said the department is open to suggestions from hunters about ways to control bears. She’d also like hunters to report more of their encounters with bears.

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