Lower quota prospect prompts threats of unrestrained harvests

Hunters, scientists polarized over polar bears


Polar bears in Baffin Bay are either thriving in record numbers or teetering on the edge of oblivion, depending on who you ask.

On one side are Inuit hunters from Pond Inlet, Clyde River and Qikiqtarjuaq, who say they've never seen so many bears before – and that the number of nuisance bears, which are hungry, unafraid of people and known to break cabin windows, are on the rise.

On the other side are wildlife scientists who warn the Baffin Bay population – which is hunted by Inuit from Nunavut and Greenland – has been over-hunted for years, causing their population estimates for bears to plunge from about 2,100 in 1997 to an estimated 1,500 bears today.

Stuck in the middle are members of the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, who met in Pond Inlet this week with the unenviable task of deciding how to handle the territorial government's request that they drastically reduce the number of polar bear tags shared by these three communities each year, from 105 to 64.

The proposal would effectively overturn a big quota increase given to Baffin Bay hunters in 2001. At that time, Nunavut sided with hunters who reported that the bear population had boomed.

But times are different now that the polar bear has become a poster species for climate change. Big environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund are carefully watching the wildlife board's decision. The WWF is urging the board to adopt an outright ban on polar bear hunting in Baffin Bay until the population recovers.

In response, some hunters say if a ban is put in place, they plan to ignore it and start shooting bears freely. The credibility of scientific counts of animals, in the eyes of many hunters, has worn thin.

After all, they recently learned the Department of Fisheries and Oceans now believes there are just as many bowhead whales swimming in eastern Arctic waters as there were before European whalers plundered their stocks in the 19th century.

DFO once believed there were little more than 5,000 bowhead whales in the Eastern Arctic. As a result, the bowhead hunt has been carefully regulated, with usually only one hunt permitted every few years. Now DFO believes there are 14,400 bowheads in Nunavut waters – an increase of more than 300 per cent.

The last time bears were surveyed in Baffin Bay was 1997. Current numbers are projections based on hunting records from Nunavut and Greenland.

But if scientists are correct, the number of bears being hunted will need to be reduced much further than 2001 levels. To prevent the Baffin Bay population from declining further, the Government of Nunavut's scientists say only 69 bears should be hunted each year – by hunters in both Nunavut and Greenland.

Greenlandic hunters have always shot more Baffin Bay bears than their Nunavut counterparts. In 2001 and 2001, Greenlandic hunters killed more than 200 each year. Greenland only introduced quotas in 2006, and they remain voluntary.

So, even with Nunavut's proposed new quotas, hunters from Nunavut and Greenland will likely continue to take more than double the sustainable number.

To address this, the wildlife board is considering a proposal that's sure to be even less popular than a return to the tighter quotas of 2001 – to keep cutting the number of Baffin Bay quotas after the 2008 hunting season, until a sustainable number is reached.

Jayko Alooloo, chair of Pond Inlet's hunter and trapper organization, says he and representatives from Clyde River and Qikiqtarjuaq want the wildlife board to hold off on any decision for five years, until after a new survey of bears is conducted.

And, when the next meeting is held, they want a representative from Greenland to attend.

For Nunavut, the polar bear hunt is about more than tradition. It's also worth big money in job-starved communities. In 2007, the three communities held a total of 35 sport hunts, worth an estimated total of $875,000.

The head-butting between hunters and scientists over the number of bears is not new. Similar disputes have played out elsewhere in Nunavut, such as the Western Hudson Bay. There, scientists say the number of polar bears has declined from 1,200 in 1987 to 950 in 2004 – a decline linked to shrinking sea ice.

Climate change isn't believed to be linked to the decline in Baffin Bay. But scientists say it may help explain why Inuit hunters now see more bears than ever.

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.

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