'It’s a great concern for Inuit'

GN plan to tag 300 bears angers hunters


Inuit hunters aren't happy about a Government of Nunavut research scheme that would tranquilize 300 polar bears from the Foxe Basin sub-population and fit them out with radio-frequency ear tags.

"It is a very grave concern for us," said Paul Quassa, the mayor of Igloolik, who added that he and other mayors raised the issue at last week's meeting of the Nunavut Association of Municipalities in Rankin Inlet.

The project is opposed by the Kivalliq Wildlife Board and is provoking strong reaction from Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and hunters in some affected communities.

"I feel very sorry for hunters who are going to catch bears that have been tranquilized," Quassa said.

Hunters hate the use of tranquilizing drugs to immobilize the animals.

That's because of a Health Canada guideline that bans the consumption of meat from an animal that has been killed within a year after being tranquilized.

Because of this rule, growing numbers of Nunavut polar bear hunters have caught bears they're not allowed to eat. Instead, the GN pays them $300 in compensation.

The study, which actually began last year, is aimed at producing a new population estimate for the Foxe Basin polar bear group, whose numbers haven't been studied since the mid-1990s.

The boundaries of the sub-group designated as "Foxe Basin" spans a huge area that runs from the top of Foxe Basin itself down through Hudson Bay to Rankin Inlet on the west and Nunavik on the east.

To do the research, GN wildlife workers will immobilize the bears by shooting them with darts loaded with a powerful tranquilizing drug called Zoletil.

Zoletil, used widely around the world by veterinarians and wildlife researchers, essentially combines a PCP-like anaesthetic drug called teletamine with a tranquilizer that's similar to valium and occasionally finds its way into the hands of drug abusers. In 2000, a GN polar bear researcher who no longer works for the territorial government was caught injecting Zoletil.

After drugging each bear, researchers will attach an identification tag to its ear. Each of those ear-tags will house a microchip capable of transmitting a radio-signal for a distance of up to a mile.

Those tags, called radio frequency identification, or RFID tags, give researchers the ability to identify each bear at a safe distance, using a hand-held reader while flying over the animal in a small aircraft.

Researchers will wrap GPS satellite collars around the necks of about 35 bears, then use computers to track their movements from signals routed to them through GPS satellites.

They'll also measure each animal, take blood, fat and hair samples, and remove a tooth to determine the bear's age.

Hunters have almost always opposed the use of such techniques, especially satellite collars, saying they threaten the animal's health.

Quassa said hunters fear that the collars will cause bears to get their heads stuck through breathing holes in the ice while hunting seals.

And hunters in Repulse Bay have complained that researchers attach the collars at a time of year when the bears are thin. They say that later in the year, when bears get fat, the tight collar chokes them.

Elizabeth Peacock, the GN's polar bear biologist, said the use of the RFID ear tags means the tagged bears don't have to be re-immobilized for future study.

"We're trying to reduce the amount of handling," Peacock said.

And she dismissed the concerns of hunters about satellite collars, saying there's no evidence to support such fears.

"We're professional. We know what we're doing. People have been putting collars on bears for years. We go to the HTO meetings. We understand their concerns but we have a job to do," Peacock said.

She said a scientific study of the Foxe Basin sub-population is long overdue. In the mid-1990s, the area's polar bear population was estimated at about 2,100 animals.

Peacock said researchers believe that number has risen to about 2,200, but they need rigorous scientific proof to support that theory.

She said that's why researchers have to immobilize, tag and handle as many as 300 bears – to get an accurate population estimate.

"It's just the way that people estimate polar bear populations. It's what we do to get a good estimate. You need a high relative sample size," Peacock said.

And Peacock said the GN is trying to persuade Health Canada to lift its one-year ban on eating the meat of drugged animals. That's because research has shown that animals usually excrete Zoletil from their bodies within a few weeks.

Gabriel Nirlungayuk, the director of wildlife for Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., said his organization is deeply concerned about the large numbers of polar bears that researchers handle every year.

That's mostly because of a recently completed study of the Davis Strait population that led to hunters in South Baffin catching large numbers of recently tranquilized bears.

At its annual general meeting last fall, NTI delegates passed a resolution asking the GN to stop tranquilizing animals and to look for other ways of doing population surveys.

"When Inuit get a bear that's been immobilized they don't want to eat it because of the drug that's been used. It's a great concern for Inuit," Nirlungayuk said.

And Nirlungayuk said the observations of Inuit hunters are never taken seriously when such scientific studies are done.

"Inuit are out on the land in all seasons, snowmobiling, summer boating, camping. Inuit know what is out there… In the end, Inuit are always proven right," Nirlungayuk said.

A research permit application for this year's phase of the Foxe Basin polar bear study – which would start Aug. 1 this year and finish on July 30, 2009 – is now in the hands of the Nunavut Research Institute.

Peacock said that as part of this work, GN researchers will also work with Parks Canada on a study of polar bear movements in Wager Bay, which lies at the heart of Ukkusiksalik National Park.

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