The Nunavut government does not think the polar bear should be classified as a species of special concern under the federal Species at Risk Act, says territorial Environment Minister Daniel Shewchuk.
Shewchuk said there is no clear evidence to support assigning that status to the polar bear despite recommendations to the contrary by Environment Canada and a federal scientific panel.
"We live in polar bear country," Shewchuk told reporters in Iqaluit on Friday afternoon. "We understand the polar bears, and we do actually think our polar bear population is very very healthy, with the exception of a couple of populations that we are taking action on."
The polar bear was most recently designated a species of special concern in 2002. "Of special concern" is the least serious "at risk" designation — one level below "threatened" and two levels below "endangered."
Currently, the special-concern designation has been suspended while the government reviews the polar bear's status and decides whether to renew the classification or change it.
An arm's length scientific panel, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), reviewed the polar bear's status in 2008 and recommended that it remain in the special-concern category.
Change of position
The recommendation has initiated a long process of hearings and consultations, including a round of hearings in Nunavut in April.
Environment Canada is expected to decide in a couple of months whether to renew the special concern status.
Shewchuk said while the Nunavut government originally agreed with the special-concern listing, it changed its position after consulting with Inuit hunters and others on a recent community tour.
"Through direct consultation, they are unanimous in their belief that polar bears have not declined," Shewchuk said.
Scientists on the committee have argued that although Canada's polar bear population has improved over the last 50 years, the future of the species could be threatened by climate change and receding sea ice.
"Certainly, we recognize that the Arctic may experience substantial impacts from climate change," Shewchuk said. "But listing polar bears now, based on predicted but unknown future impacts, is not reasonable.
"Based on hunter observations, polar bears are presently still healthy and abundant across Nunavut — and for that reason, not a species of special concern."
At-risk designation requires management plan
Being listed as a species of special concern means polar bears must be protected by a management plan that would address the habitat and survival of the species.
But Shewchuk said the Nunavut government already has an "excellent track record" in terms of collaborative wildlife management, using a combination of the best scientific data and Inuit traditional knowledge.
He said appropriate steps are already being taken to conserve two polar bear subpopulations — in western Hudson Bay and Baffin Bay — that have been of most concern to federal authorities.
Those subpopulations have been of concern to scientists who said their numbers are declining. Inuit in those areas have disputed the scientific claims, saying they have seen more bears.
Shewchuk said his new decision has already been sent to federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice.
"I'm aware that I will be under tremendous pressure externally for no longer supporting the special-concern proposal," he said.
"However, I'm being responsive and listening to Nunavummiut, especially hunters and elders, who have lived all their lives in the North, who have extensive and professional knowledge of the environment and our wildlife in Nunavut," he said.