North

U.S. polar bear decision condemned in North

Condemnation came swiftly from Canada's North to Wednesday's decision by the U.S. government to list polar bears as a threatened species.

Condemnation came swiftly from Canada's North to Wednesday's decision by the U.S. government to list polar bears as a threatened species, as Inuit groups and northern politicians denounced the bears' new status.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne made the announcement in Washington on Wednesday, saying the decision was based on findings that bears' Arctic sea ice habitat has dramatically melted in recent decades.

While environmental activists applauded the move, people in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories say it runs contrary to observations by Inuit that polar bear populations are on the rise in some areas.

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The decision will also effectively kill the American sport hunt that brings more than $3 million a year to the Canadian Arctic.

"Obviously, we're very disappointed with the decision," Paul Irngaut, a wildlife communications adviser with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., said Wednesday.

"We feel that it's going to affect a lot of the Inuit up here who rely on the sport hunt, especially from the American sport hunters."

The Nunavut land-claims organization was one of several groups — including the Nunavut government, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference — that sent out statements criticizing Kempthorne's decision as soon as it was announced.

By listing the polar bears as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, all U.S. federal agencies will have to ensure nothing they do would jeopardize the bears' survival or their sea ice habitat.

It would also ban American sport hunters from bringing home polar bear hides as trophies from hunts in the Canadian North. Americans spend about $30,000 to $35,000 to hunt a bear.

Irngaut and others, like Grise Fiord resident Larry Audlaluk, said a ban would spell bad news for some Nunavut communities that rely on the sport hunt for income.

"There are many polar bears, so I think the Americans have no right really to decide on an animal like that," said Audlaluk, a former hunting guide in the small Ellesmere Island community.

While the U.S. government says it does not oppose a subsistence hunt, Audlaluk said he's worried that listing polar bears as a threatened species across the Arctic will create a negative public perception of polar bear hunting in general.

Nunavut blames 'misinformed public opinion'

In a news release, the Nunavut government said the U.S. decision is based on "misinformed public opinion which disregarded sound science and Inuit traditional knowledge."

"Our scientists in the field as well as Inuit elders have observed an overall increase in the polar bear population," Premier Paul Okalik said in the release.

"It is unfortunate the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] has decided to disregard facts collected by those who have the greatest contact and longest history with polar bears. The truth is that polar bear populations are at near record levels."

It's estimated that there are about 25,000 polar bears in the world, about 15,000 of which are managed or co-managed by people in Nunavut.

The closure of the U.S. market to polar bear products will have no effect on polar bear hunting quotas set in Nunavut, the government said in the release.

N.W.T. minister predicts 'chilling effect'

Making the polar bear a threatened species would also affect some remote Northwest Territories communities, which earn about $700,000 a year from the polar bear sport hunt.

"Clearly there's going to be an impact on especially the sports hunting — I would suggest a chilling effect," said Michael Miltenberger, the territory's environment and natural resources minister.

Miltenberger said the U.S. decision is just another example of people outside the North making decisions about the North.

For now, he said his government is looking for ways to allow American hunters to continue bringing their trophy hides home.

Polar bears have been a species "of special concern" in Canada since 1991 — one step below "threatened" and two steps down from "endangered."

Last month, the scientific committee that evaluates species at risk recommended that the federal government retain the "special concern" designation for the polar bear, saying some bear populations have declining numbers while others have stable or even rising numbers.

Ian Stirling, a biologist with Environment Canada, told CBC News that not all polar bear populations should be listed as threatened, as the U.S. decision has done.

"I think it makes a lot more sense to consider groups of populations that are being similarly affected, and that are at a similar stage, than doing a 'one size fits all,' but that wasn't what they did," he said.

Environment Minister John Baird said the "special concern" designation will stay for polar bears, but added he would consider more "aggressive action" on certain bear populations that are seeing declining numbers.

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