It’s Not Just About the Bears: The Nunavut Polar Bear Sport Hunt

The polar bear sport hunt is important in many ways to Inuit people of Nunavut, however, for non-residents world-wide, the hunt is often viewed in a negative light, especially with the polar bear’s elevated iconic status as a symbol of the Arctic and as a barometer of climate change. For the people of Nunavut, the polar bear hunt is an integral part of their culture; both social and economic. Hunting is a way of maintaining their relationship with the bears and also, a way of maintaining their social relationships within their own community. It is also a valuable part of their subsistence economy. The hunting of polar bears in Canada is an Aboriginal treaty right. Sustainable harvest management planning incorporating both scientific and Inuit perspectives is a way to help preserve that right, and also, to protect the polar bear.

Polar bears on an Arctic shoreline
Photo by Dick Hoskins on Pexels.com

Climate warming in the Arctic has become one of the world’s most important topics, and with it, the concern over the future of the polar bear. The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is an icon of the Arctic environment and Canada’s wildlife heritage. The polar bear is the world’s largest land carnivore and is at the top of the food chain. It lives in five countries: Denmark (Greenland), Canada, The United States (Alaska), Russia (Siberia) and Norway. According to the official International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List (completed in 2015), there are an estimated 22,000 to 31,000 polar bears worldwide and Canada is home to about two thirds of that population, with about 15,000 polar bears. Most of the existing Canadian polar bear population is located in Nunavut.

Loan Polar bear
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The polar bear is seen as a symbol of the Arctic and also as a barometer of climate change and pollution issues. The world’s spotlight, however, shines not only on the polar bear, but on the people of Nunavut, who depend on the polar bear for subsistence. Their lives are intertwined within the harsh environment of the Arctic, which both the people of Nunavut and the polar bear have shared and survived for thousands of years. No species has drawn greater attention to the anticipated negative consequences of climate change in the North’s marine environment more than the polar bear. In fact, in no small way, polar bears have been ascribed the dual role of climate change icon and the canary that warns of the imminent collapse of the arctic ecosystem. For the Inuit who depend on polar bears, this has been extremely detrimental, as stories spread worldwide about the plight of the poor hunted polar bears, casting negative images of Inuit people and causing many to fight for the ban of the trophy hunt in Canada. The harsh and misinformed judgments bring backlash from all corners of the world; many, without having any real understanding of the Inuit or their long-standing relationship with polar bears; often putting the survival of the polar bear above that of the Inuit people.

Nunavut is located in northern Canada and stretches 1.9 million square kilometers, which is nearly one fifth of the size of the whole country. It includes most of the north-eastern part of what was previously the Northwest Territories, including Baffin Island, Ellesmere Island, the Canadian Arctic archipelago, and multiple other smaller Inuit inhabited islands. The population of Nunavut is 29,474, of which 85 percent are Inuit. The three official languages of Nunavut are Inuktitut, English and French. Although some Inuit have adopted more modern lifestyles with the advent of globalization, many still hold on to traditional indigenous belief systems and customs, including subsistence economic activities. Subsistence means to support oneself at a minimal level. In a subsistence economy, economic surplus is minimal and only used to trade for basic goods, and there is no industrialization. For Inuit hunters, both the historical subsistence polar bear hunt, and the trophy hunt are viewed as economically necessary to maintain the minimal needs of the Nunavut Inuit for life, and therefore, both are an integral part of their subsistence economy.

Nunavut Inuit and the Polar Bear:

The Inuit people of Nunavut have a distinct culture and are self-governing. They have lived among the polar bears for thousands of years and view them separate from other animals because they are intelligent, human-like, powerful, and inhabit both the land and the sea ice. The Inuit have a wildlife harvesting culture in which they view wildlife and humans as integrated into one economic and social system, in which the polar bear is an active participant of the hunting process. Wildlife harvesting and use is critical to the survival of the Inuit culture and it is fundamental to both their social and economic well-being. Inuit communities play an important role in wildlife co-management in Canada and they are active in ensuring that wildlife is conserved for future generations and their cultural values and practices include full sustainable use.

For the Inuit, hunting is a way of maintaining their relationship with polar bears. The bear-Inuit relationship is based on respect. The practice of hunting is also a way of maintaining their social relationships within their own community through sharing. The cultural value of hunting is not limited to subsistence hunting, but s carried over to sport hunting also. In Nunavut, Aboriginal people are entitled to give all or part of their polar bear hunting quotas to non-Aboriginal people for sport hunting. In the mid 1980’s, the sealskin market collapsed and so polar bear sport hunting became popular. This was a way for the Inuit to offset their financial losses resulting from the collapse of the sealskin market. The requirement of all polar bear sport hunts to travel via dogsled team or on foot, instead of snowmobile or other motorized transportation is another cultural benefit, as it is a way of maintaining traditional knowledge. Inuit polar bear hunters are well respected in their communities as the practice of subsistence hunting remains a source of pride. Hunting reflects many positive values. Distributing game meat in the community also reinforces the Inuit identity. Often, in sports hunting, non-Aboriginals leave the polar bear meat from their kill to the Inuit community to eat, so the guide is still supplying game meat for sharing, same as a subsistence hunt.

Economically, polar bear sport hunting is much more lucrative than subsistence hunting. It is obvious, however, that the cultural value of polar bears and the preservation of the species and their habitat has a much higher value, since only a small percentage of the allowable hunting tags are allocated to the sport hunt each year. Polar bear sport hunting in Canada is estimated to earn about $1.3 million/year, a large part of which represents the net incomes of Inuit communities that sell part of their hunting quotas to non-residents.

The Polar Bear Sports Hunt Quota:

In Nunavut, polar bear hunting is controlled through a quota system. Community quotas are generally set from Total Allowable Harvest (TAH) calculations at a management level. The quotas are the estimated sustainable removal rate that also includes defense kills, illegal kills and accidental kills (all anthropogenic mortality). Both the sex ratio and the number taken are regulated, so the sport hunt is sustainable.

Recommendations from provincial, territorial and federal scientists, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), researchers from other range States and academics are taken into account when setting TAH for management units.

Approximately 90% of the polar bears in Canada are found in Nunavut and the North West Territories. To hunt polar bears in Nunavut, a hunter must be in possession of a government-issued hunting tag. Sport hunting tags are allocated in one of two ways. A hunter can forfeit their own subsistence tag or a tag can be obtained through the local HTO’s or HTC’s. The HTO or HTC allocates tags in consultation with hunters. In either case, the tag is counted as part of the subsistence quota. Once a kill occurs, information and proof of sex of the animal is collected, which helps with monitoring quotas. The tags are attached to the skin of the bear, which also helps to ensure legal trade.

The “Conservation Hunt”:

Conservation hunting is a term used to reflect the benefits to wildlife management and conservation and the relationship between the associated local wildlife and the user, resulting from regulated recreational hunting programs. Conservation hunting provides conservation benefits to the targeted wildlife population and social and economic benefits to local rural communities. There are many instances where well managed hunting by local people in northern regions is used as a conservation tool. Polar bear sport hunting is one of them. A polar bear conservation hunting program can contribute to the viability of the population by generating incentives and a management system to support associated habitats and ecosystems. It can provide continuous and inexpensive population monitoring and also encourage compliance with regulatory regime, as well as ensuring that other land-use activities are compatible with the maintenance of viable wildlife populations. Additional benefits of the polar bear conservation hunt include: maintaining the human cultural links to the natural environment and providing local products and services that are less costly to the environment than importing substitutes. Inuit polar bear hunters and guides have provided a large amount of scientific data necessary for continued research and monitoring throughout the Arctic; about 90% of bears taken since 1970 and even more since the mid 1990’s. At this time, there appears to be no evidence that polar bear sport hunting in Nunavut is detrimental to their conservation. Additionally, for the people of Nunavut, the economic benefits are significant; making the hunt beneficial in multiple arenas. I believe that the multiple contributions to wildlife conservation and community social, economic and cultural benefits associated with the polar bear trophy hunt show that it is, and can continue to be, a successful conservation hunting program if there are sustainable management programs in place.

Legislation, Regulation, and Management in Canada:

Polar Bears in Canada are managed in accordance with various legislation, regulations, and policies, in addition to land claims agreements. In Canada, responsibility for management and conservation of polar bears lies primarily with the provinces and territories, but this power lies only within their own borders. Some provinces and territories are subject to land claims agreements. Nunavut is one of them. The federal government is responsible for matters related to international agreements and international trade in wildlife. Coordination between the provincial, territorial and federal governments is carried out through the Canadian Wildlife Directors Committee. (CWDC). Coordination of the provinces, territories, co-management boards and resource user groups regarding the management and conservation of polar bears is facilitated by the Polar Bear Administrative Committee (PBAC) and supported by the Polar Bear Technical Committee (PBTC).

Species at Risk Act (SARA):

SARA was proclaimed June 2003 to help protect and manage Canadian indigenous species from becoming extirpated or extinct. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is the scientific advisory body for SARA, and they perform species assessments to determine risk levels of species of concern in Canada. Presently, COSEWIC lists the polar bear as being of special concern and the polar bear is listed on Schedule I of SARA as a species of special concern.

Land Claim Agreements:

Land claim agreements are essentially modern-day treaties in Canada that are negotiated between Aboriginal groups, the Government of Canada and the relevant province or territory. (Shadbolt, 2012). The settlements have provided protection for traditional ways of life respect for Aboriginal land rights (approximately 40% of Canada’s land mass), Aboriginal ownership of 600,000 square kilometers of land, participation in land and resource management decisions, access to future resource management decisions, capital transfer, and associated self-government rights and political recognition.

Nunavut Land Claims Agreement:

The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement covers one fifth of Canada’s land mass and is the largest land claims agreement in Canadian history. The agreement provides Nunavut Inuit with ownership of approximately 352,000 square kilometers of land (18% of Nunavut),  and includes rights to harvest wildlife throughout Nunavut Settlement Area and input into wildlife management through participation in the NWMB and the right for self-determination and self-government. Nunavut Land Claims Agreement is unique because it incorporates Inuit beliefs and values into the system of government. The Nunavut Wildlife Management Board (NWMB) is considered the main instrument for wildlife management in Nunavut.

Arctic ice
Photo by Jean-Christophe Andru00e9 on Pexels.com

Differing Perspectives:

Polar bear harvest management is a controversial issue that affects more than just the polar bear population, as the harvest quotas that are derived from the estimates must sustain Inuit communities each year. Discrepancies regarding polar bear populations and future trends are an ongoing issue. Inuit and scientific perceptions are grounded in different epistemologies, relationships and interactions with polar bears. An example of opinion differences is in regards to the rising number of bear-human encounters. Scientists argue that the increase in bear-human encounters is due to rapid environmental change and that polar bear numbers are decreasing, whereas the Inuit believe the numbers are increasing. For many Inuit communities, the rising number of bear encounters in close proximity to communities has them believing that polar bear numbers are increasing. Although Inuit do acknowledge there have been impacts due to climate change, they also believe that the bears will adapt. The Inuit see the changes in polar bear behavior as a sign of adaptation.

Much of the recent polar bear research has been focused on the impact of climate change and scientists believe that polar bear numbers are decreasing, especially due to the sea ice breakup being earlier each year, providing bears with a shorter time in which to build up the vital fat deposits needed during their long periods of fasting time. Scientists see the presence of more polar bears near Inuit communities as a sign they are in trouble. It is important that both perspectives be considered when evaluating harvest levels.

Harvest-based monitoring:

Harvest-based monitoring is defined as the long-term collection of data or samples from a subsistence harvest in order to reveal, document, and track changes in bio-physical resources. Indigenous Knowledge, also referred to as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) contains valuable information about natural systems. TEK involves the knowledge of the local harvesters and residents which is gained through their experiences, observations and analysis of natural events, and then shared with their community. The harvesting of polar bears in Aboriginal subsistence economies provides a wealth of information for scientific study. Long-term sources of harvest data can be more consistent and reliable than when scientists come to collect data for only a short period of time, and offer baseline data which is critical for future studies. Harvest-based monitoring programs may run for years or even decades, therefore have the ability to be more thorough and accurate in their forecasts.

In Conclusion:

Both the polar bear subsistence hunt for Aboriginals and the polar bear sport hunt for non-Aboriginals is an integral part of the Inuit socio-economic culture. Polar bear hunting is an exclusive, traditional right of Aboriginal peoples. Presently, there is a sustainable population of polar bears that can be maintained in most Nunavut hunting areas, which can be successfully managed if current and accurate sustainable quotas are used. Polar bear management must be a joint effort and must include all stakeholders. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is a valuable asset and should be included in harvest management decisions. Having harvest-based monitoring as an integrated component of polar bear management programs is crucial to both the Inuit people and the polar bears. “The importance of fairly recognizing and justly compensating Aboriginal partners for their contributions to program design and delivery at par with science partners cannot be overstated” (Bell & Hardwood, 2012).

The Polar Bear Sport Hunt is an integral part of Inuit life in Nunavut and the socio-economics of the hunt needs to be strongly considered in any polar bear conservation program. The hunt contributes valuable data used for scientific research and also brings awareness to conservation efforts in northern regions that may have otherwise been generally ignored, and therefore the Sport Hunt is beneficial in multiple arenas. Accurate polar bear population counts in Nunavut hunting areas need to be carried out on a regular basis to ensure on target harvest quotas and to safeguard the future sustainability of polar bears. These counts should not only be based on current scientific research but must include Aboriginal sources such as TEK, as it is not only their treaty right, but such a wealth of ecological knowledge will be an enhancement to Polar Bear Management Programs in the future. The importance of developing sound co-management practices and sustainable harvest quotas is vital to both polar bear populations and the future of the people of Nunavut. Quotas should not be based on predictions, but rather on current information. There is certainly a differencing of opinions regarding several crucial factors, such as climate warming and polar bear population trends, but opposing views should be encouraged, not silenced; as it is through shared knowledge that new ideas are born and solutions often found. It is not only the future of the polar bear that is at stake, but the quality of life for the people of Nunavut.

References:

Bell, Robert K., Hardwood, Lois A. 2012. Harvest-based monitoring I the Inuvialuit settlement region: steps for success. Arctic Vol.65 No.4 (December 2012) p421-432.

Dowsley, Martha. 2005. Polar bear as a multiple use resource in Nunavut: local governance and common property conflicts. Position paper for the Northern Research Forum, Yellowknife, NWT, Canada. September, 2004.

Dowsley, Martha. 2007. The development of multi-level governance for the management of polar bears in Nunavut and Territry, Canada.

Dowsley, Martha. 2009. Inuit-organized polar bear sport hunting in Nunavut territory, Canada. Journal of Ecotourism.Vol.8,No.2, June 2009,161-175.DOI:10.1080/14724040802696049

Dowsley, Martha. 2010..The value of a polar bear: evaluating the role of a multiple-use resource in the Nunavut mixed economy Arctic Anthropology, Vol.47,No.1,pp.39-56.

Environment Canada 2014. Polar bear conservation. www.ec.gc.ca

Freeman, MMR, Wenzelm, GW. 2006. The nature and significance of polar bear conservation hunting in the Canadian

Arctic. Arctic. Vol.59, No.1 (March 2006) P.21-30

Freese, C.H. 2000. The consumptive use of wildlife species in the Arctic: Challenges and opportunities for ecological sustainability. Toronto, Ontario: WWF-Canada and Oslo: WWF-International Arctic Programme.

INAC 2014. Acts, Agreements and Land Claims. Land Claims: Comprehensive Claims. www.ainc-inac.gc.ca

IUCN 2015. International Union for Conservation of Nature https://www.iucn.org/

Olar, et al. June 2011. Evidence of the socio-economic importance of polar bears for Canada. Eco Resources Consultants, for Environment Canada.

Shadbolt, Tanya, York, Geoff, Cooper, Ernest, W.T. 2012. Icon on ice: international trade and management of polar bears. Traffic North America and WWF-Canada.

Tyrrell, Martina. 2006. More bears, less bears: Inuit and scientific perceptions of polar bear populations on the west coast of Hudson Bay. Erudit. DOI:10.7202/017571ar.

Wall, W.A. 2003. Key components of conservation-hunting programs and their relationship to     populations, ecosystems, and people. Paper presented at the 3rd International Wildlife Management Congress, 1-5 December 2003, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Wall, W.A. 2005. A framework proposal for conservation-hunting best practices. In: Freeman, MMR, Hudson RJ, and Foote, L. eds. Conservation hunting: People and wildlife in Canada’s North. Occasional Publication No. 56. Edmonton, Alberta: Canadian Circumpolar Institute. 8-13.

Wenzel, G.W.2010. Polar bear management, sport hunting NS Inuit subsistence at Clyde River, Nunavut. Marine Policy (2010), doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2010.10.020

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