Inuit lives must be protected over polar bears, Nunavut community says

Government officials must do a better job of controlling the polar bear population along the west coast of Hudson Bay, according to residents left scared and angered by a pair of recent and deadly attacks.

Residents rattled by deadly attacks as territory works toward new bear management plan

Polar bear monitors have patrolled the northern community of Arivat since 2010. They use live trapping, bear bangers, rubber bullets and ATVs to deter bears from entering the town of 2,500 on the western shore of Hudson Bay. (Jordan Konek/CBC)

Government officials must do a better job of controlling the polar bear population along the west coast of Hudson Bay, according to residents left scared and angered by a pair of recent and deadly attacks.

Two Nunavut men were killed by polar bears this summer — in the communities of Arviat and Naujaat. They were the first such deaths in the territory in 18 years, and many say they could have been prevented if the communities were allowed to kill the bears like they were 10 years ago, before protections were put in place.

"Like any other protected animals, they grow in numbers fast," says Alex Ishalook, deputy mayor of Arviat, the southernmost Nunavut community on the coast.

The community was once allowed to kill 20 polar bears each year. That dropped to zero about 10 years ago when the territorial government changed the hunting regulations. The restrictions soon became a problem, Ishalook says.

The hamlet hired polar bear monitors in 2010 to patrol the area and fend off bears, and it set up a hotline for residents to report bear activity.

If a bear comes into town, people in all corners of the community of 2,500 pick up the phone, he said.

These days, Arviat hunters receive a handful of hunting tags each year; at least 12 for the 2018-19 season.

Researchers and Inuit have been at odds over polar bear populations in the territory, with Inuit insisting that they are growing, and posing a threat to residents. (AFP/Getty Images)

But fall is the season with the most human-bear interactions, and the bear monitors patrol until late November when the sea ice freezes and the bears move out to hunt.

Trick-or-treating on Halloween was moved inside the community hall about five years ago to keep kids safe.

"We always tell our children to look outside closely before walking out and listen for any dogs that are barking differently," Ishalook says.

Everyone, he says, needs to always check for bears coming into town and to bring dogs with them to the playground to keep them safe.

'It angers us a lot'

The hunting limits have taught bears they're not going to be killed, which makes even experienced hunters afraid, says hunter Brian Aglukark, who watched a bear kill local man Aaron Gibbons while hunting in July.

Aglukark said he wanted to save him, but the bear was too close. Gibbons, 31, put himself between the bear and his three young children.

"It was like he was a rag doll. The bear had him by the neck, throwing him around like a toy, his whole body going up and down," Aglukark told CBC News, in Inuktitut, during a visit to the community this fall.

Arviat hunter Brian Aglukark says the hunting limits have taught bears they’re not going to be killed, which has caused even experienced hunters to be afraid. (Jordan Konek/CBC)

Gibbons's sister Darlene Gibbons says the government needs to prioritize Inuit lives over the polar bears.

The government of Nunavut is responsible for polar bear management. It conducts research, which informs quota numbers. Consultations on a new polar bear management plan began this week in Iqaluit, which is expected to incorporate more traditional Inuit knowledge than previous guides.

Aglukark agrees that Inuit concerns have not been adequately addressed.

Leaders "need to understand that we are human. We are alive, we have a tradition and it feels like nobody is thinking about that now. It's very heartbreaking that way. It angers us a lot," he said.

Darlene Gibbons's brother died in a polar bear attack this summer. She says the government needs to prioritize Inuit lives over the polar bears. (Jordan Konek/CBC)

'Pressure to conserve'

Bear monitors can kill a bear coming into town, but it comes out of the community's quota for the year — or, if the quota's been met, out of the following year's.

For the 2018-19 harvest season, western Hudson Bay communities are allowed to kill a total of 38 bears, including self-defence kills. The region's wildlife board allocates a specific number for each community, but the territory says Arviat shouldn't get less than 12 hunting tags.

In total, Nunavut hunters will be allowed to kill 489 bears this season. The government estimates there are around 14,000 bears in the territory. Those who kill bears without hunting tags are considered poachers and can face fines or even jail time.

The territory's draft plan acknowledges that outside pressures have affected how polar bears are viewed.

"Pressure to conserve and protect polar bears from national and international environmental and non-governmental organizations, climate change advocates, and the general public at large has created contention about the status of polar bear populations," it reads.

In 2011, the bears were listed under the federal Species at Risk Act as being of "special concern," necessitating a national plan to keep them from becoming threatened or endangered.

Polar bears are attracted to communities by the many smells and opportunities for food. This polar bear is scavenging at Arviat's dump. (Jordan Konek/CBC)

Polar bear numbers have increased since the 1950s, but the sticking points are their general health, and which subpopulations are growing. The territory's 12 subpopulations were previously governed by memorandums of understanding that will be replaced by the new plan, which will be valid until 2026.

"In my lifetime we have seen opposite ends of the spectrum, where when I was a child we saw no bears and now we can see 40 bears a year near town," Sandy Akavak, an elder from Kimmirut, on Baffin Island, is quoted as saying in the draft plan.

Nunavut's Wildlife Management Board is running the consultations and will finalize the plan, though it's not clear when it will be ready for approval by Nunavut's cabinet.

Bear monitors use live traps, like this one, to relocate polar bears that come into town. (Jordan Konek/CBC)

With files from Jordan Konek