Inuit elders in Nunavut's western Hudson Bay area say more polar bears need to be hunted, as their populations are rising — contrary to scientific data that suggests a decrease.
Elders and hunters from the territory's Kivalliq region told the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board on the firstday of public consultations Tuesday in Arviat that they and others have noticed more encounters with polar bears in recent years.
The wildlife board is holding the consultations to seek feedback on proposals from Nunavut's environment department to reduce polar bear hunting on western Hudson Bay and Baffin Bay. The hearingsend Wednesday with submissions by Nunavut Tunngavik and the Canadian Wildlife Service.
"We feel we need to take some action, some management action, on this conservation issue," Nunavut wildlife research manager Mitch Taylor said Tuesday.
The government is concerned that polar bear population is declining, citing data from the Canadian Wildlife Service indicating the number has dropped below 1,000 bears, as their health and survival are being threatened by shrinking ice.
Territorial Environment Minister Patterk Netser has given the wildlife board a number of formal recommendations that call for reductions in the polar bear harvest in those areas, with the most drastic option being a moratorium on hunting for a period of time until the bears' numbers increase.
Taylor acknowledged that a moratorium would create a real hardship on the Kivalliq people, who prize the polar bears for their nutritional and cultural value, as well as an income source from bear hides and sport hunting expeditions.
"On the other hand, we have conservation, and if we've identified something that's unsustainable, we have to address it," he said. "So the concern has to be for polar bears and for future generations."
But Johnny Karetak, an Inuit elder from southern Nunavut, told the hearing panel that Inuit don't agree the bear population is decreasing, and he doesn't want to see anyone get killed because there are more bears than people may think.
Many elders at the meeting gave examples of frightening encounters with the bears — encounters they say are happening more often.
Other elders voiced concern that the wildlife board is only considering scientific information such as the Canadian Wildlife Service's data, and overlooking Inuit traditional knowledge.
But wildlife board chairman Joe Tigullaraq said both science and tradition will be considered, as its final recommendations about hunting will have to strike a balance.
"That's how information received will be looked at, whether it be scientific information or Inuit knowledge," he said.
"We just have to try to do things in a way that makes sense to the harvester and to the scientific mind."
After the hearings wrap up Wednesday, the wildlife board will take some time to come up with a final decision. It will also hold a set of hearings in September in Pond Inlet, one of the communities that hunts for polar bears on Baffin Bay.
Tigullaraq said he is aware the world is watching how Nunavut is managing its polar bear population.