Western Arctic polar bears in good shape: Inuvialuit hunters

New study should help challenge wider perceptions on polar bear health, Inuit leaders say


A male polar bear along the Beaufort Sea near Alaska, photographed in 2005. (PHOTO BY STEVEN AMSTRUP)

A male polar bear along the Beaufort Sea near Alaska, photographed in 2005. (PHOTO BY STEVEN AMSTRUP)

Inuvialuit hunters, like many of their Inuit neighbours, believe polar bears in the western Arctic are generally in good health.

But to give those observations some more teeth, wildlife co-management agencies in the Inuvialuit region have released an extensive new study on the subject.

“Inuvialuit and Nanuq: A Polar Bear Traditional Knowledge Study,” as its title suggests, is based on interviews with more than 70 elders and experienced hunters from six communities, prepared by the Wildlife Management Advisory Councils of the Northwest Territories and North Slope, Yukon.

In the study, hunters observe that the overall physical condition of polar bears around the Beaufort Sea has remained stable over time, although that can vary from one year to the next.

“The bears that I do see are in good shape,” noted a hunter from Aklavik in the NWT who was interviewed for the study. “They’re hunting and they are being successful and getting fed. If polar bears were starving, you think they would start to pop up here — they would be here and there. But that’s not happening.”

Those hunters did observe changes; many said polar bears appear to be thinner now than before climate-related changes were first noted in the Arctic in the early 1980s.

Almost all the hunters interviewed for the study spoke of the significant changes in sea ice conditions in recent decades, resulting in earlier break-up in the spring and later freeze-up in the fall.

Those factors have clearly changed the animals’ habitat, hunters said.

“Right now with the climate change, you know that bears are losing a lot of their habitat out on the ice,” said Andy Carpenter, a hunter from Sachs Harbour, NWT. “But they do adapt to go someplace else probably, and you see a lot of them on land now… there’s more bears on land now.”

It would be premature to conclude that the animals’ population has declined and their overall condition has deteriorated, Inuvialuit hunters said, given the animals’ complex relationship with sea ice.

Those findings contradict other recent studies which have suggested major declines in the abundance of the southern Beaufort polar bear population.

In 2014, researchers from the United States Geological Survey, Environment Canada and the University of Alberta published a study noting a 40 per cent decline in Beaufort Sea polar bears between 2000 and 2010.

While traditional knowledge among the Inuvialuit suggests polar bears in that region are generally stable, the study also aims to illustrate the cultural and economic importance of the polar bear hunt for Inuvialuit communities.

The study describes how the Inuvialuit hunted polar bears in decades past, how the animals were butchered and how their parts were used in the region’s communities.

Many elders likened polar bear meat to modern-day fuel, as it was used to feed sled dogs when they were the primary form of transportation.

Through their wildlife management agencies, hunters also noted their commitment to help conserve local polar bear populations, using a blend of traditional and scientific knowledge.

“Polar bears are very important to our peoples, our cultures and so we do have the greatest respect for them,” said Larry Carpenter from Sachs Harbour. “We want our future generations to know polar bears like we do.”

Inuit organizations congratulated the Inuvialuit and their wildlife co-management bodies this week for their work on the study.

“Today I am encouraged to see an extensively verified, peer-reviewed study of Inuit knowledge of the key relationships between Inuvialuit and polar bears,” said Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Terry Audla in a March 30 release.

“Inuit commitments to Arctic wildlife conservation lie at the heart of our land claims agreements and the use and inclusion of our knowledge is a crucial part of these commitments.”

In Nunavik, Makivik Corp. vice president Adamie Delisle Alaku said the new study will help challenge “popular impressions” on polar bear health and abundance.

“The Inuvialuit study provides an excellent example that Inuit, who have lived for millennia with polar bears, are in the best position to understand the state of polar bears in a changing environment,” Delisle Alaku said in a March 30 release.

You can read the full study here.

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