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Canada's Inuit roar in protest over move to protect polar bears

They say animal rights activists put the species at more risk than hunters who regard it as central to their livelihood.

July 08, 2012|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
  • Lew Philip, a veteran Inuit polar bear hunter, says he bagged his first one at age 8. Like many elders, he resents outside interference in how the Inuit manage the polar bear population.
Lew Philip, a veteran Inuit polar bear hunter, says he bagged his first one… (Kim Murphy, Los Angeles…)

IQALUIT, Canada — Doomsday predictions of the polar bear's demise tend to draw an Inuit guffaw here in Nunavut, the remote Arctic territory where polar bears in some places outnumber people.

People will tell you about the polar bear that strode brazenly past the dump a month ago or the bear that attacked a dog team in the town of Arviat in November. Heart-rending pictures of polar bears clinging to tiny islands of ice elicit nothing but derision.

The move to protect polar bears is appreciated for one thing, however, and that's a hefty hike in the price for a dead one. Across Canada, prices for polar bear pelts have soared over the last few years, with two at a June 20 auction in Ontario fetching a record $16,500 each.

"Four years ago, we were lucky to get a thousand dollars for a 7-foot polar bear. Now, you can sell that 7-foot polar bear for between $3,500 and $4,000," said Frank Pokiak, chairman of the Inuvialuit Game Council in northwestern Canada.

The only country in the world that allows its polar bears to be shot and sold commercially on the international market, Canada — home to two-thirds of the remaining population — has reaped the benefits of the rest of the globe's concern for the bear. So have its native people. An estimated 77% of the world trade in polar bear parts in recent years came from about 500 bears a year killed in Canada, 300 of which typically enter the international market, according to a review by the Humane Society of the United States and Canadian officials.

Now U.S. conservation groups are pushing the U.S. to back an agreement that would ban most international trade in polar bear parts, with a move to upgrade the listing for the polar bear under the 175-nation Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES.

Forty-three Democrats from the House of Representatives signed a letter in June in favor of the upgrade. Further, the Center for Biological Diversity in January petitioned the U.S. Interior Department to initiate trade sanctions against Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement, contending the nation is in violation of a 1973 treaty on conservation of polar bears.

"Not only is Canada home to two-thirds of the world's population of polar bears, but it's home to what is arguably the most important population of polar bears, because it's the population in Canada that scientists expect to persist the longest in the face of global warming," said Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is pushing for the trade ban.

Inuit leaders from Canada's far north are preparing to fight back, arguing that new international restrictions could wreck the region's fragile economy and possibly create even greater threats to the bears.

"For the world to suggest that we'll save the polar bears and forget the people, that's a little backwards," said Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents about 55,000 Inuit across Canada. He and most Canadian game management officials argue that Canada's polar bear quotas are set well within sustainable levels.

"The Inuit have always hunted the polar bear. It's in our best interest to ensure the population is healthy," Audla said. "But people have to have faith in us and work with us — to base things on facts, and not listen to these animal rights activists who are bending the truth."

***

Polar bears depend heavily on sea ice to survive, using it as a resting place and springboard from which to hunt seals. Rising temperatures have caused dramatic shrinkage of Arctic ice, especially in the summer months, and biologists have documented smaller bear populations in some areas, bears hungry and thin, bears forced to swim hundreds of miles between ice floes and bears forced to seek food near human communities on shore.

The risk of future declines is considered "very high" for bear populations in six regions across Alaska and Canada, according to the Polar Bear Specialist Group, an international union of research scientists. In at least two of those areas, Kane Basin and Baffin Bay, a Canadian government-ordered study blamed declines not on global warming but on unsustainably high harvests by hunters, many of them in nearby Greenland.

The government of Nunavut drew international cries of protest in October when it increased the hunting quota from eight to 21 bears in western Hudson Bay — where numbers already have declined from 1,200 two decades ago to about 700. Nunavut officials said their most recent aerial survey proved there were actually 1,000 bears in the region. Hunters in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, probably motivated by soaring pelt prices, killed 60 bears during the 2011 early spring hunt, several times the normal harvest, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

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