U.S. effort to nix polar bear trade angers Inuit

Canadian Inuit are outraged over a U.S. plan to use an international treaty to eliminate all trade in polar bears anywhere in the world.

Canadian Inuit are outraged over a U.S. plan to use an international treaty to eliminate all trade in polar bears anywhere in the world.

They say it would cripple one of their few industries and they're calling on the federal government to step in.

"We're fighting with Goliath here," said Gabriel Nirlungyak, director of wildlife with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which oversees the Nunavut land claim.

"We want our government to defend us."

On Friday, Tom Strickland, the United States assistant secretary of the interior, released a proposal to the 175 countries that have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

The proposal says polar bears should be moved to a classification that would outlaw all commercial trade in the animals.

"The proposals submitted this week will improve protections for dozens of declining species, while improving enforcement and implementation of (the convention) for many others," Strickland said in a news release.

The bears are threatened by habitat loss — the result of melting sea ice caused by climate change, he said.

Previous moves by Washington have already killed most of the market for U.S. sport hunters by preventing them from bringing hides back with them. Nirlungyak said if the new proposal is accepted at the convention's next meeting in March, it will wipe out all other markets.

"If this goes ahead, it will stop all sport hunts," he said. "It will be quite devastating."

Sport hunters pay up to $30,000 for the opportunity of bagging one of the world's largest land predators, and Inuit hunters can get up to $150 a foot for a bear hide.

Nirlungyak said there's no evidence the animals are endangered. He said Canada's populations — two-thirds of the world's 25,000 bears — are well-managed.

Nunavut issues a total of 518 tags a year for subsistence and sport hunts, although not all the tags are used. The territorial government is seeking to reduce some of those quotas, although Inuit hunters are resisting.

The latest data suggests 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.

Nirlungyak said trade in no other species has been under the convention based on forecasts.

"There's no justification," he said. "There's no need when you look at the science. It's a political move.

"We want the Canadian government to defend us and oppose this listing."

An Environment Canada spokeswoman said in an email that Canada does not support the U.S. request to change the polar bear's status.

She said Canadian representatives would lobby other countries to reject the proposal, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass.

The U.S. proposal even surprised some environmentalists.

"Our initial analysis indicated that hunting was not the primary threat," said Geoff York, the World Wildlife Fund's director of polar bear conservation. "We were not expecting any country to advocate a proposal for polar bears on this."

York said any new protection for polar bears must have the support of the people who live with them.

"We have concerns about the impact … on northern people," he said. "The people on the ground have to be involved with the solution."

However, Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defence Council, which lobbied for the proposal, said any extra stress on bear populations should be eliminated as they struggle to adapt to a new climate.

"As populations start to decline, it becomes much more important to keep other factors affecting (them) to a minimum," Wetzler said. "We think that trophy hunting is inappropriate."

This year's summer sea ice reached its third-lowest level in 30 years of record-keeping.

Wetzler said the Canadian government should provide transition funding to Inuit communities to wean them off the hunting industry.