The GN’s bungling haunts us still


Thanks to a big recommendation last week from a respected group of polar bear scientists and wildlife conservation experts, it’s now unlikely that small sports-hunt outfitters in Nunavut will face an unnecessary global ban on trade in polar bear parts.

This is good news, because it means a conservation dispute featuring exaggerated claims on all sides may soon be put to rest.

And it means the Government of Nunavut may one day get a chance to recover from the blunder it committed in January of 2005. That was when the GN’s Department of the Environment, notorious at the time for weak ministers and weak staff, raised the annual polar bear quota by 115 across the territory, a move that raised eyebrows around the world.

This included a decision to raise the Baffin Bay quota to 105 from 64, a decision based on traditional Inuit knowledge, not scientific advice. But only six months later, when asked to show how they collected this traditional knowledge, the bungling GN couldn’t, when requested, produce any documentation.

The GN is now attempting to reverse their hasty Baffin Bay quota decision, through a proposal to restore the total allowable catch to where it stood before 2005. The Nunavut Wildlife Management Board is now considering this and other options.

But for Baffin Bay, it’s now too late to correct the error of 2005. The Canadian Wildlife Service, in a special study they call a “non-detrimental” finding, imposed its own ban, which took effect Jan. 1, on the export of polar bear parts from the Baffin Bay sub-population.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. In a letter to the NWMB last year, Environment Minister Jim Prentice warned that such a move was coming. “It will be difficult to defend trade where available information indicates overharvest [in Baffin Bay] is a conservation concern,” Prentice said in his letter.

It could have been a lot worse.

This past October, as many readers will remember, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it will ask the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, due to meet this March in the small Persian Gulf state of Qatar, for a total ban on the export of polar bear parts from Canada to any other country.

Thankfully, a group of polar bear scientists who from a body called the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, together with conservationists with the World Wildlife Fund, now recommend that the U.S. proposal be rejected.

They say that hunting, including sports hunting, does not pose a threat to polar bear populations. The biggest threat, they say, is climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions. And they say the effects of climate change, such as reduced sea ice, will occur slowly, one decade after another throughout the coming century.

Over time, the scientists predict climate change will reduce the world’s polar bear population by at least 30 per cent by the end of this century. But they also say this does not justify a global ban on trade in polar bear parts, which they consider to be an insignificant factor.

For Inuit sports-hunt outfitters in Nunavut, this recommendation is a fortunate development. Regardless of where you may stand on polar bear quota issues, the U.S. proposal, even on its face, makes no sense.

The small numbers of people who pay many thousands of dollars to community-based outfitters for a chance to kill polar bears and take their heads and hides back home as trophies pose no threat to the health of the species in Canada.

And as everyone in Nunavut knows, these sports hunts have no effect on annual kill rates, which are subject to quotas worked out through complex negotiations between government agencies, hunters and Inuit organizations within the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board.

This scientific position doesn’t guarantee that CITES member-states will say no to the U.S. proposal.

But it’s likely to have a decisive influence over their decision. It’s also likely that CITES member-states will respond favourably to Jim Prentice’s recent decision to impose a unilateral Canadian ban on polar bear exports from Baffin Bay.

This is a tough pill to swallow for small outfitters in communities like Pond Inlet and Clyde River. But it avoids a much worse scenario: the death of polar bear sports hunting everywhere in the Canadian Arctic.

In the recent past, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. has claimed that this would “devastate” Inuit communities in Nunavut. This is a wild exaggeration.

The last reliable study on the value of polar bear sports hunting in Nunavut, done by McGill University’s George Wenzel in 2001, found that sports hunters, mostly from the U.S., then spent about $2.9 million a year.

Of that, only about $1.5 million went to Inuit. For the territory as a whole, this is economically insignificant, roughly equal to what a couple of mom-and-pop retail stores might receive in an average year.

But this issue isn’t about business or economics. It’s about cultural identity. That’s why it gives rise to deep, primal emotions. JB

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