The question of how to classify Canada's polar bears under species-at-risk legislation is the subject of a three-day public hearing that began Tuesday in Iqaluit.
Polar bears in Canada were listed as a "species of special concern" — one step below "threatened" and two below "endangered" — under the federal Species at Risk Act in 2002.
The Nunavut Wildlife Management Board is hosting the three-day hearing to consider a 2008 recommendation from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) to keep the "special concern" classification.
The board will submit its own recommendation to the federal government, which will make the final decision about whether to change the polar bear status.
There were an estimated 15,500 polar bears in Canada in 2008, according to COSEWIC, a 60-member scientific committee that advises the federal government on species that should be protected.
Hutchings said a species of special concern must be protected by a management plan that addresses concerns about species survival and habitat.
Sea ice puts survival at stake: chair
The committee spent two years assessing data about the entire Canadian polar bear population — which is divided into 13 isolated subpopulations — chairman Jeff Hutchings said Tuesday.
Hutchings said although COSEWIC found there are generally more polar bears today than 50 years ago, their future survival could be threatened.
"The key question is what's going to happen in the future given that sea ice is likely going to decline and that polar bears do depend upon sea ice," he said.
"That's the key uncertainty; it's looking into the future. That's the basis for the special concern listing."
While the committee is worried about the effects of climate change in the Arctic, it also has concerns about the hunting of polar bear subpopulations in the Baffin Bay and Kane Basin areas, some parts of which are governed by Greenland.
Inuit in those areas have long disputed scientists' claims that overhunting has led to fewer bears and could threaten the survival of those subpopulations.
"I hear people around the table, and they say, 'You know, we are not overharvesting,' and I would agree completely," Chris Hotson, the Nunavut government's assistant director of wildlife management, said at Tuesday's hearing.
"This was a combined overharvest that's been talked about in Baffin Bay and Kane Basin with Greenland, and it was because the management partners in Canada and Greenland weren't aware of what was going on with the other one."
Inuit disagree with listing
The Nunavut government indicated on Tuesday that it would support COSEWIC's recommended listing for the polar bear.
But most Inuit representatives, including elder advisors, disagreed with the proposal, partly out of concern that a reaffirmation of the special concern listing could result in stricter Inuit hunting quotas.
But Hutchings said polar bear harvest levels will not change if the special-concern listing is approved. What it would lead to, he said, is a broader management plan and more research on polar bear habitat areas.
"The management plan that is required under the Species at Risk Act, I would think — or I would hope — would recognize ... the fact that bears in some areas are doing better than bears in others," he said.
"So, even though the assessment is at a single level, the management plan should appropriately recognize the differences that exist throughout the species' Canadian range."