Polar bear status remains a contentious issue

An international agreement Thursday identified climate change as the number 1 threat to polar bears, but how this will translate into policy within Canada is very much up for debate.
A polar bear stands on a ice floe in Baffin Bay above the Arctic Circle, as seen from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent in July 2008. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

The governments from five Arctic countries — including Canada — agreed on Thursday after a three-day summit in Norway that climate change has had a negative impact on polar bears and their habitat, calling it the most important long-term threat facing the giant carnivores.

But how that international agreement will translate into policy within our own borders is very much up in the air.

Nearly a year after the United States moved to list the polar bear as a threatened species, Canada is continuing to wrestle with whether to list the carnivore as a "species of special concern" — a status one below "threatened" and two below "endangered" under Canada's Species at Risk Act (SARA).

And the interested parties on both sides of the debate haven't budged from their positions: environmental groups and biologists insist the polar bear is in danger of disappearing as sea ice in the Arctic is lost, while Inuit groups insist polar bear populations are as healthy as ever.

Ottawa estimates there are 15,500 polar bears in Canada, about 60 per cent of the world's population. Native groups say that is double the number of 50 years ago — proof, they say, that the polar bear is not in danger.

Populations are up, Inuit say

"Inuit are seeing more bears because there are more bears," Nunavut Tungavik director of wildlife Gabriel Nirlungayuq told the CBC's Rebecca Zandbergen.

But environmentalists argue that while some polar groups have stable populations, others in regions like western Hudson Bay or Baffin Island are threatened by a combination of shifting sea ice and over-hunting.

"The Baffin Bay population cannot sustain harvest at the current level because of the past decade of over-harvesting," said Peter Ewins, director of species conservation at World Wildlife Fund Canada.

"The facts really speak for themselves and managers should really pay attention to that and not cave into local demands to increased harvests," Ewins said.

Inuit hunter Joshua Kango looks out on the Arctic horizon at sunrise in search of a polar bear on Frobisher Bay near Tonglait, Nunavut in this 2003 photo. Inuit leaders contend polar bear populations are healthy and do not need special protection. ((Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press))

The government first listed the mammals as a species of concern in 1991, a status it kept in subsequent assessments in 1999 and 2002.

But in 2004, Ottawa turned down the recommendation of an arms-length scientific advisory group — the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada — to continue to list it as a species of special concern, sending the matter back to the committee over what it said was a lack of traditional aboriginal knowledge in the assessment.

The committee again recommended it be listed as a species of concern in April 2008 and gave the recommendation to then-environment minister John Baird. But current Environment Minister Jim Prentice is still considering the recommendation.

International scientific groups have also contributed to the debate. In 2006 the 40 members of the polar bear specialist group of the World Conservation Union — now called the International Union for Conservation of Nature — decided, unanimously, to list the polar bear as vulnerable.

As Andrew Derocher, a University of Alberta researcher and head of the group told the CBC's Eve Savory a year ago, "If there is no ice, there are no bears."

Scientists report sea ice receding

Some polar bear subpopulations rely on continuous sea ice to migrate north in the summer, and as scientists have reported, that sea ice is disappearing.

University of Manitoba climate researcher David Barber, who led the $40-million Circumpolar Flaw Lead study, reported year-after-year declines in sea ice, with the 2007 retreat the largest on record, allowing clear navigation of the Northwest Passage for the first time in human memory. In 2008 the sea ice bounced back, but Barber said last month that ice was mostly first-year ice likely to melt this summer.

The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report on endangered areas also listed the Arctic ecosystem as particularly vulnerable, with rises in temperatures well above the anticipated 1.8 to four degree Celsius global rise expected over the next century.

A mother polar bear and her two cubs walk along the shore of Hudson Bay near Churchill, Man., in 2007. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

Thursday's agreement between Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States was an update of the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, which at the time was primarily concerned with protecting polar bears from hunting, and outlawed the practice for all but indigenous people.

The new agreement, reached after a three-day summit in the Norwegian town of Tromsoe, outlined the shift in focus to include climate change as a priority for future conservation efforts.

"The parties agreed that long-term conservation of polar bears depends upon successful mitigation of climate change," the countries said in a joint statement. "[The] impacts of climate change and the continued and increasing loss and fragmentation of sea ice … constitute the most important threat to polar bear conservation."

Environmentalists were hopeful the agreement would spur each of the countries to pursue more aggressive strategies for battling climate change. The agreement, however, falls short of making a direct appeal for action to the United Nations climate conference, scheduled to take place in Copenhagen in December 2009, where countries will plan to negotiate a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

The next meeting of the five countries on the status of polar bears will take place in Canada in 2011, followed by one in Russia in 2013.