Inuit, scientists split on polar bear numbers

Inuit hunters and polar bear biologists remain at odds over the true number of polar bears in Nunavut's Baffin Bay region, with opposing views at a public hearing on whether to cut hunting quotas.

Inuit hunters and polar bear biologists remain at odds over the true number of polar bears in Nunavut's Baffin Bay region.

The Nunavut Wildlife Management Board held a public hearing Tuesday as it considers the territorial government's request to cut bear hunting quotas in Baffin Bay.

Inuit hunters in both Nunavut and Greenland hunt polar bears in the region, which stretches between Baffin Island and northern Greenland. Hunters have argued that the number of bears there is really rising, not shrinking.

But Nunavut government biologists have raised concerns about overhunting and a decline in polar bear numbers in the bay area, saying the combined polar bear hunt in Greenland and Nunavut is not sustainable.

Show good conservation methods

They are urging the wildlife board to recommend cutting the hunting quota — known as a total allowable harvest — or imposing a hunting moratorium, in part to demonstrate that Canada has good wildlife conservation methods.

"Our management system is recognized as being very good and there's a lot of confidence in it," Drikus Gissing, director of wildlife management with the Nunavut government, said at Tuesday's hearing.

"Last year, I went to Brussels to go and try and defend our management system when the EU tried to ban export from Baffin Bay populations and other populations within Nunavut. And eventually [they] agreed to support the import of polar bears, except for Baffin Bay."

Currently, Inuit in Greenland can hunt up to 68 polar bears a year.

Hunters in Nunavut can currently take up to 108, but the territorial government wants to slash that number to 64, introduce a new reduced quota or impose a complete moratorium on polar bear hunting there.

'Substantial impacts' predicted

In their presentations to the widlife board, Inuit organizations maintained that the Baffin Bay polar bear population is actually increasing.

Representatives from Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the territory's Inuit land-claims organization, argued that the government's method of researching polar bear numbers is not accurate.

Glenn Williams, NTI's wildlife consultant, told the board he believes Inuit hunters have a more credible perspective because they observe wildlife regularly.

"Because Inuit are predicting [this], you're going to see substantial impacts if you change the [total allowable harvest] on polar bears," Williams said.

"You're going to see impacts on ring seals and bearded seals and walrus. You're going to see more damage to food caches. You're going to see property and equipment damages," he said.

"And you're also going to see an increased public safety issue, not only in communities but also where people are out camping."

2 sides closer than before: board chair

It is now up to the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board to make its recommendation on the matter to the federal environment minister.

As for the longstanding divide between Inuit and Western scientists about the Baffin Bay polar bear population, acting board chairman Harry Flaherty said the two sides are closer than they may seem.

"Polar bears seem to be [the] most interesting topic, of course, and you always have the opposition arguing about who knows better. But overall, [in the] years of experience I have been sitting, looking at the Inuit perspective, they have more understanding now," Flaherty said.

"They were saying that we need to work together more, and you were also hearing that from the government side. Overall, from my own personal experience, they seem to be a lot closer than five or six years ago."

Flaherty said the wildlife board could make a decision later this week.