Governments must spend as much collecting IQ as they do on gathering scientific data, says Nirlungay

Minister gives nod to Inuit bear knowledge


Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.'s director of wildlife, Gabriel Nirlinguyak, found himself sitting next to the World Wildlife Fund's polar bear point man Peter Ewins in Winnipeg at the Jan. 16 federal roundtable on polar bear management.

"We had a chance to discuss where he was coming from, and where I was coming from," Nirlinguayuk recalled with a chuckle. "At the end of the day, we agreed to disagree."

"In the past, Inuit always considered the WWF Canada as our friend," he said, recalling that the two had cooperated on bowhead whale management issues. "But not with polar bears."

He said that a lot of Inuit feel betrayed by the animal rights movement, and by some biologists when it comes to polar bears.

Ewins has been calling loud and long for more restrictions on the harvesting of polar bears, particularly in Baffin Bay and Hudson Bay.

The polar bear is the WWF's poster animal in its campaign against global climate change, said Nirlungayuk, and "the Inuit are caught in the middle."

He is trying to be optimistic about federal environment minister Jim Prentice's announcement after the meeting of a "strong commitment to integrate Inuit traditional knowledge and science" into Canadian polar bear management.

After all, the roundtable was an historic event, Nirlungayuk said. It was the first time that Inuit had been invited to present their positions and concerns on wildlife management directly to a federal environment minister.

But Inuit traditional knowledge won't get fair weight in polar bear decisions, he said, until governments spend as much money on collecting Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit as they do on gathering scientific data.

"People are wondering how to interpret Inuit traditional knowledge. First policy makers have to open up their purses to collect IQ. They've got to put money into it."

If you gave each of Nunavut's communities $100,000 to collect Inuit traditional knowledge on polar bears, it would still cost less than the amounts spent on scientific research, he said.

Participants in the roundtable included territorial, provincial, Inuit, First Nations, scientific and conservation community representatives.

And those from NTI, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Nunavut government all called for greater focus on IQ in bear management in their presentations.

The optimistic view is that Prentice got the message.

In his report on the roundtable to the Nunavut legislature, Environment Minister Daniel Shewchuk said besides recognizing the importance of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, Prentice also committed "to pursue the completion of co-management agreements with other jurisdictions that we share our polar bear populations with, such as Greenland."

While recognizing that international agreements are a federal responsibility, Nirlungayuk said NTI hopes to set up some "user-to-user" meetings between North Baffin Inuit polar bear harvesters and their Greenland counterparts.

They could be similar to meetings that already take place between western Nunavut hunters and their Inuvialuit counterparts in the NWT, he noted.

The roundtable was a starting point, Duane Smith, Canadian president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, said in a statement after the event.

"We now expect that Inuit from all of the four Inuit land claimant regions, and all relevant co-management boards in Canada, will be substantially consulted" as the minister of the environment decides whether to list polar bears as a species of special concern under Canada's Species At Risk Act (SARA).

The United States considers it a threatened species, and has banned all polar bear imports. And the European union has banned imports of bears and bear parts taken from Baffin Bay and Kane Basin.

But Nirlungayuk argued these readings are based on limited and out-of-date surveys and do not take into account polar bear movements across management areas – between Hudson Bay and Foxe Basin for example, and between Baffin Bay and Davis Strait.

"Inuit believe that Canada's polar bears live in about four populations," he said. "It is artificial to try to make conservation decisions about 13 subpopulations, as managers do now."

The scientists spend only limited amounts of time in the bear areas, he said, while Inuit hunters gather first-hand information year round, and have an intimate, centuries-old relationship with the bears. They take a long-term view, and recognize natural fluctuations and movements in the bear populations.

Inuit are convinced the population is generally healthy, Nirlungayuk said in NTI's presentation to the roundtable. He noted that Canada's polar bear numbers have grown from about 8,000 in the early 1970s to about 16,000 today.

Canada is home to about 65 per cent of the world's polar bears.

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