For Western Hudson Bay polar bears, the magic number could be 24

Nunavut Wildlife Management Board finishes public hearings last week in Rankin Inlet


Follow the bouncing polar bear quota. This graph shows the abrupt changes to the total allowable harvest for the Western Hudson Bay polar bear subpopulation that occurred after 2005. (IMAGE EXTRACTED FROM GOVERNMENT OF NUNAVUT SUBMISSION TO NUNAVUT WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT BOARD)

Follow the bouncing polar bear quota. This graph shows the abrupt changes to the total allowable harvest for the Western Hudson Bay polar bear subpopulation that occurred after 2005. (IMAGE EXTRACTED FROM GOVERNMENT OF NUNAVUT SUBMISSION TO NUNAVUT WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT BOARD)

After bouncing up and down like a rubber ball since 2005, the Western Hudson Bay polar bear harvest quota seems likely to remain at 24 for the next three years.

The governments of Canada and Nunavut each agree on that quota number, in written submissions they made at a two-day public hearing the wildlife board held Dec. 2 and Dec. 3 in Rankin Inlet.

“[I]t is Environment Canada’s position that maintaining a TAH [total allowable harvest] of 24 bears would be the appropriate course of action at the current time,” Sue Milburn-Hopwood, the director general of the Canadian Wildlife Service, said in a submission dated Nov. 12.

The Nunavut government’s department of Environment also supports that quota number, saying it “balances the best current available scientific information and Inuit observations to ensure that the harvest does not cause a conservation concern.”

The wildlife board’s own recommendation on the issue, yet to be submitted to the relevant cabinet ministers, will be confidential.

But for Kivalliq region hunters in Arviat, Whale Cove, Rankin Inlet, Baker Lake and Chesterfield Inlet, this likely means they’ll divide up the same quota they’ve used since 2012, even though they want that number to go even higher.

And it also means they won’t get stuck with the quota of eight bears a year that they endured between 2007-08 and 2010-11.

That’s because academic “experts” agree the sub-population has stabilized for now.

At the same time, bickering between Inuit hunters, competing researchers, governments and Inuit organizations appears to be settling down after 10 years of turmoil, during which the Western Hudson Bay polar bear population became a political symbol for climate change activists.

The Western Hudson Bay polar bear subpopulation ranges up and down the west coast of the Kivalliq region from Chesterfield Inlet past Churchill, Manitoba to north-western Ontario.

Because of its more southerly location and the highly accessible bears that migrate through Churchill, Western Hudson Bay became a battleground that pitted those who fear that global warming will devastate polar bears against those who say such fears are exaggerated.

In 2005, the Government of Nunavut raised the total allowable harvest in the region from 47 to 56, based on Inuit knowledge.

With eight added for Manitoba, the total Western Hudson Bay quota then stood at 64.

But not for long.

An oft-quoted study done by researchers with the federal government’s Canadian Wildlife Service claimed the subpopulation’s numbers declined by 22 per cent between 1984 and 2004, from about 1,200 bears to about 935.

And they said that because of global warming, the later formation of sea ice in the fall was making it harder for bears to hunt seals on the ice, decreasing their chances of survival.

And they claimed the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation would continue to decline in the future.

This put the CWS into conflict with Inuit hunters, Inuit organizations, and for a while, the GN.

Kivalliq hunters continued to insist that Inuit knowledge is more accurate than the knowledge produced by the mathematical projections that academic researchers perform on data gathered in their capture-and-tranquilize studies.

But the Government of Nunavut did a U-turn. Working with others through the NWMB, they set the Western Hudson Bay quota at only eight, starting with the 2007-08 polar bear hunting season.

The quota remained at eight bears through 2010-11.

Around the same time, the CWS did another study, claiming the subpopulation had fallen to 806.

“The 2011 population estimate for Western Hudson Bay subpopulation based on capture-recapture analysis is 806 bears with 95% confidence intervals of 653-984,” Environment Canada said at the time, producing more fear among people who believe that the demise of the polar bear is imminent, due to global warming.

But by 2011, the GN, working with the government of Manitoba, did a counter-study of its own.

In it, they counted polar bears from the air, and came up with a population claim of 1,030, much higher than the earlier CWS studies.

And they concluded that the earlier CWS study was partly right and partly wrong.

The GN researchers said the CWS was correct in guessing the subpopulation’s numbers had declined, more or less, in the years between 1984 and 2004.

But they also concluded the CWS was incorrect in predicting the subpopulation would continue to decline.

And they said the subpopulation now is likely stable.

“The aerial survey-derived estimate is consistent with the 2004 capture-based estimate but inconsistent with projections suggesting continued decreases in abundance,” the GN said.

This produced triumphalist declarations from organizations like Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., who used the GN study to declare that Inuit knowledge had been right all along.

“Inuit were told by scientists the reason there are more bears in communities is due to a decline in the condition of the population, but Inuit disagreed with this interpretation,” NTI vice president James Eetoolook said in 2012.

And NTI also used the GN study to downplay the influence of climate change on the health of the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation.

“This is not about climate change,” Eetoolook said in 2012. “This is about how polar bears were used to draw attention to climate change.”

By then the quota of only eight bears was leading to big problems with defence kills.

In 2010-11, hunters made 14 defence kills to protect human life from roaming polar bears — exceeding the quota.

Since then, the rate of defence kills has dropped to about one a year, mostly due to better monitoring and deterrence in communities like Arviat.

But in 2011, the quota was raised to 21, and in 2012 to 24, a quota number that will expire in mid-2015, to be replaced by a new three-year quota to be recommended by the NWMB for the following three seasons.

And prior to the NWMB public meeting, a group of CWS researchers put on their thinking caps and did more work on their projections for the future.

They describe their technique in a big, fat mouthful of statistical jargon.

“We used a Bayesian implementation of multistate capture-recapture models, coupled with a matrix-based demographic projection model, to integrate several types of data and to incorporate variation across the polar bear life cycle,” they said in a summary of a 50-page report they produced in November 2013.

“Bayesian implementation” means the use of a certain kind of logic to determine whether certain types of events are probable in the future, and how probable they might be.

And by doing that they found their earlier predictions were off — and that the population is now stable.

“This updated population assessment suggests that polar bear numbers in Western Hudson Bay have been relatively stable over approximately the past decade,” Environment Canada said.

Environment Canada put this “new information” into a submission to the NWMB they filed last November, in advance of last week’s public hearings.

In reaction, NTI issued another statement saying Inuit were right all along.

“Activists have used the health of this population to predict all sorts of dire impacts on the Arctic and all of its species, but science is showing the bear population has been healthy,” Cathy Towtongie, the president of NTI said Dec. 4 in a statement.

“This confirms what Inuit have reported. The predictions that the population would decline were wrong, and this has impacted Inuit lives and property,” Towtongie said.

The GN proposes doing another population study of the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation in 2016, to generate information for use in a new quota decision that would kick in by the 2017-18 hunting season.

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