Declining Polar Bear Population Spared 2002 Hunt

IQALUIT, Nunavut, Canada, January 22, 2001 (ENS) - From car licence plates to government logos, the polar bear is the lasting symbol of Canada's newest territory, Nunavut. But numbers of the animal have plummeted in one region, according to the territorial government, which has cut hunting quotas this year and banned hunting in 2002.

Established as a territory in April 1999, Nunavut accounts for 1.9 million square kilometers, nearly one fifth the size of Canada. Sizable polar bear populations are found in six regions of the territory but in one - MíClintock Channel - numbers are much smaller than previously thought.

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For a chance to shoot a bear, each U.S. hunter pays between C$15,000 to C$20,000 (US$9,928 to US$13,328). (Photo courtesy Nunatsiaq News)
Concerns over hunting began last year, when a three-year study by Nunavut's Department of Sustainable Development indicated that MíClintock Channel's bear population, previously thought to be near 700, was actually less than half that.

The study estimates there are 288 bears in the region. At present hunting levels, the bears would be wiped out in a decade. Even without hunting, their recovery will be slow, the study indicates.

"The population is showing classic signs of what it would look like if it were depleted under hunting pressure," said Steven Atkinson, the director of wildlife with the Department of Sustainable Development.

"The population is in trouble in MíClintock Channel."

Last week, Nunavut's government cut this year's hunting quota in MíClintock Channel from 32 bears to 12, with no hunting allowed in 2002. On January 10, the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife announced it will ban imports of bear hides from the area.

Under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, bear skins may only be imported from areas of Canada that have healthy bear populations.

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Map of Nunavut. (Map courtesy nunavut.com)
MíClintock Channel is located east of Victoria Island in the north-central Kitikmeot region, high in Canada's Arctic north. Polar bears there are hunted by residents of Cambridge Bay, Gjoa Haven and Taloyoak. They are taken for local use and as part of lucrative guided sport-hunts.

The most recent edition of Nunatsiaq News, which serves Nunavut from the capital Iqaluit, features the story of nine year old Levi Inookee, who killed his first polar bear on a two day hunting trip with his grandfather earlier this month.

Hunting is a rite of passage for many Inuit children, one of the many reasons why adult hunters are concerned for the future. Some disagree with last year's research.

Abel Aqqaq, head of the Taloyoak Hunterís and Trapperís Organization, doubts the departmentís findings. The study, he said, "has not been done in a very proper way."

"We see a lot of bears out in the MíClintock Channel area. We know the numbers are still fair for hunting," he said.

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Some local hunters believe the number of polar bears in MíClintock Channel justify a continued hunt. (Photo courtesy Ohio Northern University)
Two weeks ago, at the Kitikmeot Hunterís and Trapperís Organization meeting in Pelly Bay, delegates voted against voluntarily imposing a quota on themselves.

The organization initially did not disagree that conservation is needed. In talks with the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board in December, it agreed that 12 is a reasonable quota for the 2001 season.

The cut in quota and the U.S. ban will be a severe blow to the sport hunting business, Aqqaq said.

Around two thirds of Taloyoak's polar bear quota goes to sport hunters, almost all of whom are Americans. For a chance to shoot a bear, each U.S. hunter pays between C$15,000 to C$20,000 (US$9,928 to US$13,328).

The money provides the guides with a substantial part of their annual income, and boosts the economies of their communities.

But if U.S. sports hunters cannot bring back bearskin rugs from MíClintock Channel, they will likely go hunting elsewhere, Aqqaq said. There are five other polar bear populations in Nunavut from which the U.S. government permits the importing of hides.

Nunavutís minister of sustainable development Olayuk Akesuk, who announced the cuts, said he will visit Cambridge Bay, Gjoa Haven and Taloyoak to discuss economic alternatives to the beleaguered bear hunting industry.

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Minister of sustainable development, Olayuk Akesuk. (Photo by Aaron Spitzer, courtesy Nunatsiaq News)
"Thatís why Iím travelling to these communities, to check to see how see how we can help the communities or the hunters," he said.

Whether the hunting moratorium will continue beyond 2002 will depend on further data gathered by scientists and Inuit hunters, said Ben Kovic, chair of Nunavut's Wildlife Management Board.

Published in cooperation with Nunatsiaq News: http://www.nunatsiaq.com/nunavut/index.html