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Inuit in Nunavut's Baffin Bay region have argued that the number of polar bears is rising, while biologists believe the number is declining due to overhunting. ((CBC))

The Nunavut government is reducing the number of polar bears that hunters can kill in the Baffin Bay region, where polar bear numbers have been disputed by scientists and Inuit.

Environment Minister Daniel Shewchuk announced Friday that starting this year, the hunting quota, also known as the total allowable harvest, for polar bears in Baffin Bay will be cut by 10 bears annually for four years.

That means the current quota of 105 Baffin Bay polar bears will be reduced to 65 by 2013.

"This population has been considered a conservation concern for some time now," Shewchuk told reporters Friday in Iqaluit.

"It is time to take action to ensure the sustainability of this population into the future."

Export bans

Shewchuk said he made the decision in order to preserve the polar bear sport hunt across Nunavut.

The federal government recently banned the export of fur, claws, skulls and other products from polar bears harvested in Baffin Bay, citing concerns about the bear population there. The European Union bans importation of those items.

"By taking the action that we are taking, we hope that that ban will be lifted … as soon as it can be lifted," Shewchuk said.

The reductions are similar to a recommendation Shewchuk received from the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, a regulating entity created under the Nunavut Lands Claim Agreement.

The board had asked the government to start cutting back the quota next year. But citing the urgent concern about the Baffin Bay polar bear population, Shewchuk said the reductions will begin this year.

Inuit group opposes cuts

Inuit hunters in both Nunavut and Greenland hunt polar bears in Baffin Bay, which stretches between Baffin Island and northern Greenland.

Biologists have worried about overhunting and a decline in polar bear numbers in the bay area, saying the combined polar bear hunt in Greenland and Nunavut is not sustainable.

But Inuit hunters, even those in the Baffin Bay area, have argued that the number of bears is really growing, not shrinking.

Officials with Nunavut Tunngavik, the territory's Inuit land-claim organization, argue that a proper survey of polar bear numbers in Baffin Bay has not been done for more than 10 years, so biologists are using outdated data for their estimates.

"For Inuit that do sustainable harvesting, it's a disappointment," Gabriel Nirlungayuk, Nunavut Tunngavik's wildlife director, said of the quota reductions.

"The government's thinking is that based on science, that this population is being overharvested. But Inuit are saying that the information is too old," he added.

Hopes to sway opinion

The Nunavut government hopes that slashing the hunting quota in Baffin Bay will also help Canada sway international opinion away from a U.S. proposal to ban the commercial trade of polar bear products.

Canada is among the countries that will vote on whether to reclassify the polar bear as a species at risk of extinction under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

If the U.S. bid to reclassify the species succeeds, the commercial sale of products derived from polar bears would be effectively prohibited.

The 175 countries that have signed CITES will vote on the proposal later this month in Doha, Qatar.