Inuit, scientists face “divide more political than scientific”

Bear management demands mutual respect: researcher


Inuit and scientists need to develop more respect for each other and their differing views of the world, or they risk undermining Nunavut's polar bear co-management system, says a researcher who studied Nunavut's polar bear hunt for more than 30 years.

"Each side says: ‘I'm right, you're wrong' – it's not a matter of debate," George Wenzel of McGill University said in a telephone interview from Montreal.

Inuit and scientists also need an attitude change, he says. Inuit need to become less rigid about what their traditional knowledge says about polar bears and scientists need to become less rigid about their polar bear data.

"As one digs in deeper, the other one digs in because to give, you lose," Wenzel said.

Scientists need to move away from saying, "climate change threatens polar bears and we have to reduce quotas," he says, while Inuit should be more open to other points of view besides the attitude that "the only way you can have more animals is to hunt animals."

"If that's your starting point, you're in trouble," Wenzel said. "If you start from world view extremes, you're never going to come to the middle. You have to start from where you find some agreement and work outwards to what people see as root causes."

Wenzel suggests that future discussions on polar bear management in Baffin Bay start from points where agreement already exists.

For example, Inuit and scientists both agree that polar bears cause more damage in the communities of Pond Inlet and Clyde River, where the numbers of polar bears appear to be rising, although they don't see eye-to-eye about why this is happening.

Wenzel acknowledges Inuit and scientists collect and process information about the environment in different ways, saying traditional knowledge is much more local and specific in focus than science, which collects data from a large number of points and then makes generalizations.

"Inuit in Clyde River know a lot abut Clyde River, but they don't know a lot about the Beaufort Sea. Scientists have a much larger view about what's going on in the Beaufort Sea and how it may relate to Baffin Bay, or not," Wenzel said.

But more tolerance could help resolve differences, he says, because Inuit and scientists are exchanging more information among themselves than ever before.

However, polar bear co-management is complicated by "a divide that is more political than scientific," Wenzel says.

As an illustration of that rift, Wenzel points to the co-management conflict over the 2005 increase in polar bear quotas for Baffin Bay and Hudson Bay, set by the Government of Nunavut.

The GN raised quotas from 64 to 105 in three Baffin Bay communities and from 47 to 56 in five Hudson Bay communities.

Scientists and hunters were to meet at least once every seven years "to review and update information and set direction for the continuing management of polar bears."

But in September 2007, the Nunavut government cut the quota in western Hudson Bay to 38 bears out of renewed concern that the bear population in that area was in trouble due to impacts from climate change.

And the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board is now considering a proposal by the GN to cut the Baffin Bay hunting quota to 64 bears or fewer, based on similar science.

This move won't help the polar bear co-management system survive, Wenzel says.

The majority of hunters in Clyde River – where Wenzel spent the month of July – are already unhappy, because there have been "a lot of broken promises."

First, the Government of the Northwest Territories cut their Baffin Bay polar bear quota in the early 1990s. The GNWT promised to give them $1,000 a year for each animal they wouldn't hunt, agreeing to evaluate the situation in five years.

But that evaluation took 15 years instead of five – and now, after an increase to the quota, hunters face another cut based on scientific numbers.

What needs to be done is to start where there is some meeting of minds, Wenzel says. "There are a lot more bears around and everyone agrees they are appearing earlier, now why is that?"

Wenzel and colleague Martha Dowsley explore why Inuit and scientists disagree in an article entitled "The time of the most polar bears:" a co-management conflict in Nunavut," recently published in the journal Arctic.

The two researchers poured over minutes from interviews, meetings and consultation sessions in Nunavut to find out why scientists and hunters continue to disagree with each other, even though information from traditional Inuit knowledge and science is often "fairly consistent."

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