GN now supports science over observations of hunters

Nunavut back-tracks on bear numbers

By JOHN THOMPSON

The Government of Nunavut has joined the rest of the world in accepting that the western Hudson Bay polar bear population is declining because of over-hunting and shrinking sea ice brought about by climate change.

That's a big change from the GN's former position, based on the observations of hunters, which in January of 2005 led to an increase – from 47 to 56 – in the number of bears hunted annually from that population.

At that time, the Nunavut government dismissed a Canadian Wildlife Service study that found the western Hudson Bay population dropped from about 1,200 animals to 935 between 1987 and 2004, a 22 per cent decline. Most of the the world's polar bear scientists have endorsed that study.

Now, it appears the GN accepts these numbers, and no longer supports the opinion of hunters that the population has grown to 1,400 in western Hudson Bay.

The Nunavut Wildlife Management Board will figure out how to deal with this decline after a meeting in Arviat next week, April 24-26.

Nunavut's Department of the Environment will present five options at the Arviat meeting. None are likely to be popular with hunters.

The first option is to return to an annual harvest of 47 bears per year for the 2007-2008 hunting season, which begins July 1.

The second option is to allow 47 bears to be hunted this year, and to subtract seven bears from this number each succeeding year until a sustainable harvest is reached – only 18 bears per year.

That final allowable catch of bears could be even lower, if the population continues to decline.

A third option is to follow this formula further until southern Kivalliq hunters can only take 16 bears a year. Again, that number could drop more if the bear population continues to fall.

A fourth option is to place an outright moratorium, or ban, on hunting polar bears in western Hudson Bay until the polar bear population recovers to 1,400.

A fifth option is to set the annual harvest at 38, which is the average take from western Hudson Bay over the past six years.

At some point the wildlife board will likely send a recommendation to the Nunavut environment minister, who will then announce a decision. The wildlife board's recommendations are confidential.

In a face-saving gesture, Nunavut's environment minister, Patterk Netser, wrote to the wildlife board to say the government's call for lower quotas are prompted by "new information" contained in the federal survey.

He does not mention that these survey results have been known for several years, and that the hunting quota was increased despite those numbers.

To understand the GN's flip-flop, it helps to know that the CWS survey of western Hudson Bay bears is frequently mentioned in the U.S. proposal to list polar bears as "threatened" under its Endangered Species Act.

Nunavut has launched a public relations offensive against this proposal, because such a listing would likely lead to a ban on the importation of polar bear trophies into the U.S.

Most non-Inuit polar bear sports hunters are U.S. citizens who pour thousands of dollars into Inuit communities like Resolute Bay, Grise Fiord and Arctic Bay, to pay for guided hunts.

In a recent study, George Wenzel of McGill University estimates sports hunters spend $2.9 million a year in Nunavut. Of that, about $1.5 million goes to Inuit.

On April 6, Netser's department expressed its latest objection to the US proposal, in a letter to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

In that letter, Nunavut slams the suggestion that polar bears are threatened as "unwarranted" and "highly speculative."

It says only two of the world's 17 polar bear populations are in decline due to shrinking sea ice – the southern Beaufort sea, and the western Hudson Bay – and that to generalize that all polar bears are threatened by climate change is "simplistic."

The GN prefers to point to the Davis Strait population, where hunters and scientists both agree there are plenty of bears.

But the letter also acknowledges other bear populations in Nunavut, most notably in Baffin Bay, are declining due to over-hunting.

In 2005, Nunavut dramatically increased the bear hunting quota in Baffin Bay from 64 bears to 105, based almost entirely on the reports of hunters.

The GN will now recommend a decrease in the Baffin Bay quota, during a wildlife board meeting in June, despite the claims of hunters that now is the "time of the most bears" in the area.

Of Canada's 13 polar bear populations, six appear to be in decline, according to a comprehensive Canadian status report done in 2006. Two are in decline because of climate change and hunting, two are from over-hunting, and two are from too many female bears being shot.

The GN says in its letter that each population of bears may respond to climate change differently, depending on whether the bears are accustomed to living on multi-year sea ice, which is disappearing as the climate warms, or near open waters.

Rather than list polar bears as a threatened species, the GN proposes a compromise: that if the U.S. does list polar bears as threatened, it should do so only for populations in decline.

Meanwhile, Nunavut defends its system of managing polar bears, saying that it's sustainable.

"In fact, Nunavut recommends the elimination of any harvest from declining populations," the letter states.

The U.S. is expected to make a decision on the proposal to list polar bears as endangered by January 2008.

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