KIA predicts that scientists will be proven wrong once again

Bear label increases Inuit mistrust


It's easy to romanticize the majestic polar bear when you don't have to worry about the enormous animals marauding down the streets of your community in August and September, as Lootie Toomasie from Qikiqtarjuaq often does.

For Toomasie, bears are no symbol of climate change. They're a threat to his family. He and other hunters chase the bears off, using ATVs and boats. Still, "there's too many bears for us," he says. "We're no longer safe."

One benefit the bears bring is business, in the form of wealthy U.S. hunters who are willing to pay as much as $30,000 to bag one of the beasts.

But that business may now be crippled, many worry, following the U.S. decision May 14 to list polar bears as "threatened" under its Endangered Species Act.

Most sport hunters who visit Nunavut hail from the United States. But now U.S. hunters aren't allowed to bring their polar bear trophies home, as one consequence of the "threatened" designation.

The polar bear sport hunt draws about $2.9 million into Nunavut each year, the department of the environment estimates.

The importation ban won't prevent bears from being shot. Nunavut will continue to manage its quota system for hunting bears the same as always, by estimating the total bear population, calculating a sustainable number of bears to take, and then dividing the total quota up among local hunters, who do with these tags as they see fit.

This year about 400 bears are to be shot.

Nor will the decision to list bears as threatened likely do much to stop climate change, which is melting sea ice that bears depend upon while they hunt seals.

Dirk Kempthorne, U.S. secretary of the interior, has vowed that the threatened designation will have no effect on oil and gas exploration in Alaska, or bring about any stricter rules in the U.S. to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

But the decision has succeeded enormously in infuriating Inuit. The business of outfitting American hunters brought good money into otherwise poor communities, such as Qikiqtarjuaq, where there are few jobs.

And Inuit see the decision as part of a yet another reason to distrust studies put together by wildlife researchers, which often clash with their own views.

The Kivalliq Inuit Association said in a press release they believe the U.S. decision is no different from past instances where scientists warned that animals were in decline, only to be later proven wrong by Inuit who said otherwise.

So it went with the Qamanirjuaq caribou herd 30 years ago, and with bowhead whales as of March this year, when the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans acknowledged they had dramatically undercounted the whale population.

The number of polar bears is believed to have soared over the past 30 years, from a total population of about 12,000 in the late 1960s to about 24,000 today. Two-thirds of those bears live in Canada.

Some bears are faring better than others. Of the world's 19 subpopulations of polar bears, four are believed to be in decline. One of the four is Baffin Bay, an area that includes Qikiqtarjuaq, where scientists say the bear population has plunged from about 2,100 in 1997 to an estimated 1,500 bears today.

But hunters like Toomasie say they've never seen so many bears before.

Scientists counter that more bear sightings doesn't equal more bears. They say in recent years the floe edge has moved several kilometres closer to shore on the northeastern edge of Baffin Island, bringing bears and hunters closer together.

The U.S. classified polar bears as "threatened" based on an assessment conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, which believes that two-thirds of the world's polar bears may die off due to shrinking sea ice by mid-century.

If this grim prediction proves true, there's probably not much that can be done to save polar bears that live near Qikiqtarjuaq. But Toomasie doesn't buy it.

He's seen bears stalk seals on thin ice. They spread their legs out to distribute their weight as they tread carefully. And he's seen them swim long distances. He figures if the ice disappears, the bears will find a new way to catch their prey.

As for the sports hunt, the U.S. ban on bear importation is no big deal for Qikiqtarjuaq this years. All 10 of this year's sport hunters have already come and gone.

And, unusually, all 10 were from Europe.

But finding business next year may prove more difficult. Pat Frederick works for America-Canada Expeditions, an Edmonton-based agency that helps line up sport hunters with Inuit guides in Nunavut. He says the ban is sure to hurt business.

It's possible that the importation ban on bear trophies may be overturned, if Congress decides to amend the Marine Mammals Protection Act. But, as yet, there have been no sign of U.S. officials planning on doing this.

More immediately, the U.S. sport hunting lobby has asked the courts to give them 30 days to ship this year's trophies back home. A judge is expected to make a ruling on the matter in early June.

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