Polar bear management in Nunavut: a conservation tight-rope

Nunavut’s sustainable development minister, Peter Kilabuk, has assigned a daunting task for himself and his officials: a review of Nunavut’s complex, multi-level polar bear management regime.


IQALUIT — There are more polar bears in Nunavut than in any other jurisdiction in the world — 17,000 of these giant carnivores live within the boundaries of Nunavut.

But Nunavut also has the challenge — and some say, the headache — of playing a major role in the survival of this unique species.

At the October sitting of the Nunavut legislative assembly, Peter Kilabuk, Nunavut’s minister of sustainable development, announced a review of the way Nunavut manages its polar bears.

“Two primary principles by which polar bears are managed today in Nunavut are conservation and sustainable harvesting,” Kilabuk said. “These principles are enshrined in the Nunavut land claims agreement and they are principles by which our ancestors ensured we would have polar bears today.”

But maintaining these principles requires an increasingly tough balancing act.

That’s because polar bear management touches on deep-rooted conflicts between Inuit knowledge and quantitative science, and reveals the clash between economic pressures and the conservation of living resources.

Current polar bear management policies work best when the allowable harvest satisfies the economic, social and cultural needs of a community and its hunters, while ensuring that the polar bear population does not decline.

Resolute Bay a success

In Resolute Bay, for example, subsistence and sports hunters each get a shot at the animals. Their harvest brings in enough meat and money to keep everyone happy and, at the same time, polar bears numbers are holding steady.

Last year, the Resolute Bay’s sustainable conservation practices even withstood the scrutiny of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This body determines whether a hunt has scientifically sound quotas that sustain the population.

Its stamp of approval means that skins from bears hunted near Resolute Bay may now be brought back into the States.

This positive decision brings substantial financial rewards. Sixteen of this community’s quota of 35 polar bears are reserved for sports hunters who are each willing to pay $20,000 U.S. for the thrill of taking part in a polar bear hunt.

In October, local hunters in Resolute Bay drew names out of a hat to choose who will participate in this year’s sports hunt. They’ll receive $2500 each for their participation, while the rest of the fee goes to the outfitter, airline and tour organizer.

Ordinary hunters take the remainder of the polar bears — usually out on the sea ice, but occasionally within the community.

Nathaniel Kattuk, who runs Nanuk Outfitting Ltd. in Resolute, sometimes opens his porch door to find himself face-to-face with a polar bear.

“Not even a great hunter can kill a polar bear here,” Kattuk joked.

Of course, if his community had a larger quota, there would be more economic spin-offs, but Kattuk appreciates the merit of the present system.

“We’d like more, but we don’t want to start having less and less,” Kattuk said. “We want to keep the population growing, so we’re managing polar bears the best we can.”

International agreement

This is exactly the kind of success story that Canada hoped for when it signed the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears with the United States, Denmark, Norway and the former Soviet Union.

This agreement was struck in response to concerns that the world’s population polar bears was dwindling. The signatories to the agreement agreed to prohibit the killing of polar bears except for scientific and resource management purposes and to maintain the aboriginal hunt.

Since that time, Norway and Russia have banned the killing of polar bears completely, although it’s believed that up to 200 bears are still being illegally harvested in Russia each year. Some 100 to 200 bears are hunted annually in Alaska, 100 to 200 in Greenland, and 500 to 600 in Canada.

Canada set up two committees to help manage its polar bear population and agreed to work on management and habitat protection issues. Memorandums of understanding, or MOUs, were also struck between the territorial government and hunters and trappers associations to regulate the polar bear harvest and sustain the species’ stock.

“The memorandums of understanding serve to demonstrate to the rest of the world that Nunavut as a whole is committed to the sustainable use of its wildlife resouces,” Kilabuk said in his minister’s statement to the legislature.

Quotas unpopular

But the MOUs are still a continuing source of confusion and frustration for many hunters. The quotas set by MOUs are unpopular, particularly in communities with low quotas.

These flexible quotas set the total allowable harvest for each polar bear population and limit the size and make-up of the hunt in each Nunavut community.

These quotas are designed to ensure that more males than females are killed. When there’s an overharvest of females in any one year by a community, the community’s quota for the following year is cut by a ratio of about two to one.

Set up in 1996 as a way of letting hunters take as many bears as possible while preventing overharvests, the MOUs are seen by many hunters today as a barrier.

They don’t always understand the formulas used to calculate the size of harvest. They don’t like being penalized, either, for killing a female when it’s hard to know the sex beforehand, and they wonder if the population is being skewed towards females.

Some also complain about the way that the scientific surveys of polar bear populations — the studies that back up quotas — are carried out.

Does tagging hurt bears?

These surveys involve tagging bears on the ice, but in order for a bear to be tagged, it must be sedated. Hunters are concerned that this intervention makes testy polar bears even more aggressive.

Although the government pays for meat from bears tagged within the preceding year, many hunters believe that sedation affects the long-term quality of the meat.

“I take these concerns very seriously,” Kilabuk said. “And I have directed my department staff to ensure our handling methods are closely monitored.”

How quotas are set and adjusted for the polar bear hunt causes a high level of mistrust among hunters in communities such as Iqaluit, whose hunters have to make do with relatively low quotas.

“You’re talking about two worlds of thinking,” said Sytukie Joamie of Iqaluit’s Amarok Hunter and Trappers Association. “If all Inuit adhered to traditional means of hunting, management would not be a problem. On the other hand, you have the government that requires facts and studies.”

The Iqaluit’s paltry allotment of 18 polar bears is becoming harder and harder to share among its growing population.

Iqaluit meeting Dec. 4

When the HTA holds it annual general meeting on Dec. 4, Joamie said polar bear management will be a “hot topic.”

Members will consider whether to take back the Iqaluit outpost camp allocation of four bears for use by the general membership. The AGM will also be asked to support transferring the two bears now reserved for a summer hunt to a sports hunt.

While it’s doubtful that Iqaluit will solve its bear shortage by receiving a higher quota, the Nunavut government does plan to pay more attention to local traditional knowledge about polar bears.

“Managing our polar bears in a sustainable manner can only be achieved by using a blend of the best practices of modern science and the extensive knowledge of our hunters,” Kilabuk said.

Communities are also likely to take on a more active role in management. This year, Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet, Broughton Island and Repulse Bay began managing narwhal stocks by themselves as part of a three-year trial.

Through community consultation and better communication with hunters, Nunavut still hopes to promote MOUs as the “most solid form of conservation.”

“It’s an attempt by the government to be as open with the public as possible on polar bear management,” said biologist Steven Atkinson of Nunavut’s Department of Sustainable Development. “We’re not the big, bad guys.”

Nunavut wants to steer away from the kinds of strong-arm methods used in some African countries to protect endangered wildlife such as rhinoceros or elephants.

But the conservation of polar bear populations will still be bottom line of any new polar bear management scheme in Nunavut.

If the quota system is abandoned on economic grounds, or because it doesn’t allow a harvest large enough to meet the needs of a growing human population, Atkinson fears that Nunavut wouldn’t be advocating polar bear conservation, but “exploitation.”

That’s what depleted the formerly rich Atlantic fishing stocks, says Atkinson, who favours the sustainable co-management of polar bears.

“There’s a lot of potential for partnerships,” Atkinson said.

Nunavut also wants to sign co-management agreements on polar bear harvesting with Quebec and Greenland.

In Nunavik, where polar bear hunting has had less historical importance than in Nunavut, there are no quotas — although hunters from Nunavik are said to hunt bears from the Baffin Bay population on the sea ice that lies within the Nunavut settlement area.

Nunavut’s Department of Sustainable Development also plans to look at what to do with “nuisance” or “problem” bears that terrorize communities. Bear fences are being tested as a possible deterrent.

A third-party consultant will report back to the department on the impact of handling methods used in bear population surveys, but this demanding overhaul of polar management won’t be completed overnight.

In fact, Kilabuk said that “this is a task I expect will take several years to review properly.”

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