Canada calculating polar bear's value

Environment Canada plans to spend up to $44,000 on a study to appraise the polar bear's value as a national icon.

The federal government wants to put a price tag on polar bears.

Environment Canada plans to spend up to $44,000 on a study to appraise the animal's value as a national icon.

The department has put out a tender for companies to study the "socio-economic importance of polar bears for Canada."

"There is a need to better understand the current state of knowledge of economic values associated with polar bears," the department says.

"An in-depth analysis is required to estimate the monetary and non-monetary values of polar bears — values that can serve to conduct a rigorous and comprehensive economic impact analysis of events affecting the polar bear population, their habitat, or use."

The bears are big business — a rare cash cow in small northern communities. Sport hunters pay up to $30,000 for the chance to bag a bear. Inuit hunters can get up to $400 a metre for bear hide.

Debate over bear numbers

But concerns abound for the bears south of the border. Hunters are banned from bringing bear hides into the United States, which has been trying for years to end Canada's commercial hunt.

Those U.S. efforts suffered a setback this year when an international conservation watchdog ruled polar bears aren't endangered enough to need a worldwide trade ban. Such a ban would have grouped polar bear hides in the same category as elephant ivory.

Canada has about two-thirds of the world's 25,000 bears. The latest figures suggest eight of the world's 19 subpopulations of bears are decreasing, three are stable and one is increasing. Not enough is known about the other seven to assign a trend.

Inuit have long insisted polar bear numbers are healthy. They report more and more bears roaming about.

The debate over climate change has propelled the bears into the symbolic stratosphere. Activists use the image of stranded bears on shrinking Arctic sea ice to illustrate the effects of global warming.

The animals are also the face of northern Manitoba tourism.

"Tourism is built around polar bears here," said Mayor Mike Spence of Churchill, Man.

"When I'm giving a speech talking about Churchill, I don't wander too far from saying the polar bear capital of the world."

National icon

The value of the polar bear as a national icon and not just a mantle piece is precisely what Environment Canada wants to pinpoint.

A statement of work says the study must go beyond the "trophy hunting values" of the bears.

"In other words, in addition to values derived from trophy hunting the consultant shall attempt to estimate other consumptive values (meat, hide, and other parts), non-consumptive values (tourism, art, crafts), scientific/educational value, and existence value or value as an iconic species," it says.

The eight-week study will also try to price the "value per additional unit of polar bear or value per additional hectare of habitat."

Environment Minister Jim Prentice said the study's intent isn't to price polar bears.

"Nobody is putting a price tag on an iconic species," he said. "But we need good economic analysis and we need good scientific analysis."