Polar Bear Hunt on Thin Ice

As Arctic temperatures climb and sea-ice retreats, biologists are sounding alarm about the health of polar bear populations. Inuit hunters, meanwhile, are worried about the fate of the lucrative sport-hunt industry they’ve come to depend on

AFTER SPENDING $25,000 AND 10 DAYS on the frozen Beaufort Sea, Lester “Rusty” Pride didn’t get his polar bear. He was after a nine-footer, with paws the span of hubcaps and giant maiming incisors. “I wanted a big one,” says Rusty, an affable and freckled RV-park owner from Delaware. “We saw two, but they were too far to shoot.” Rusty still managed to return with a muskox – an extra $8,000 for his Inuvialuit guide, Boogie Pokiak.

Lately Rusty’s been trying to bag two animals on each trip to fulfill his “North America Super Slam,” a hunting hit-list of 28 predators and ungulates that roam the continent. “A polar bear would’ve been my 20th,” he says, sliding cranberry jam onto bannock.

We’re sitting in Boogie’s brother’s kitchen in Tuktoyaktuk on the NWT’s north coast. Boogie and James are both veteran hunters who shot their first bears when they were teenagers. As seasoned outfitters now in their 50s they can each pull in thousands of dollars a year by guiding sport hunts, and these days business is good: James is booked until 2010 and Boogie is still getting calls late in the season.

“Sport hunts generate a lot of money in a short time,” says Boogie. “And it fits our lifestyle. We’d be out there in the first place.” Boogie is the older of the two, sharp-tongued, heftier and, today, visibly weary from the hunt with Rusty, which still isn’t over. Determined to get his mammoth bear, Rusty plans to fly back to Tuktoyaktuk in a few weeks for another shot at a trophy while he still can.

Back home in the U.S., amid a deluge of news on global warming and the melting Arctic, the government is considering listing polar bears as “threatened.” On the surface it’s a relatively benign legislative measure, which proponents hope will generate enough public concern to inspire greenhouse-gas reductions by an administration notoriously anti-environmental.

But from a Northern perspective, the designation would firmly install polar bears as the climate-change poster child, leaving Inuit hunters like Boogie and James fearful of a southern campaign to shut down a managed and economically important hunt. Yearly, polar bear sport-hunts earn Nunavut almost $2-million, and $1.2-million for the NWT. But scientists are forecasting a grim future for polar bears. If sea ice continues its rapid retreat, they predict, there’ll be no bears left by the end of the century.

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ADULT POLAR BEARS can weigh as much as a small sedan, swallow 75 kilograms of seal blubber at a time, and swim with remarkable ease. They’re found clear across circumpolar coastal-regions, from Alaska to Arctic Norway. Scientists estimate the world population to be roughly 25,000 bears. Of these, 15,000 are in Canada, mostly in the NWT and Nunavut. Unlike black bears and grizzlies, which gorge all summer to survive the lean winter, polar bears do the opposite, patrolling the ice during the cold season to fatten up on seals (and the occasional walrus or beluga whale), which will hopefully get them through the skimpy summer. Without a solid ice platform from which to wallop seals, summer is the one time of year polar bears can’t hunt, and a period scientists worry is getting longer.

Before global warming, the first real threat to polar bears was over-hunting. Though Inuit have always harvested them for meat and hides, bears weren’t rampantly hunted until the 1960s, when Americans were scoping them from planes over Alaska and Norwegian fishing fleets were “taking anything they could get,” says George Wenzel, a McGill University professor and expert on Inuit sport-hunt economies.

In 1973 this gluttonous killing prompted circumpolar nations to sign the first polar bear management agreement. But unlike Russia, Norway, Denmark and the U.S., Canada – eager to promote a profitable industry in the Arctic – allowed Inuit to lead trophy hunts. “After the collapse of the sealskin market [in the 1980s], it was harder to get money into these communities,” recalls Wenzel. “The nice thing about polar bear hunting is that it brings in interesting amounts of new money in one big slug.”

At first sport hunting was slow to catch on: Inuit were reluctant to use a portion of their quota on thrill-seeking sportsmen, and the clientele, too, was lukewarm. Big-game hunters from southern climates were petrified of the cold, and Americans weren’t lining up because it was still illegal to bring back a hide under the country’s Marine Mammal Protection Act. The industry really didn’t flourish until 1994, when hunting groups successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to permit polar bear hide-imports. The legislative loophole allowed in skins only from Canada’s bear populations deemed well-managed and healthy. (Today, six of Canada’s 13 populations are importable.)

With the green light to lug back their bear heads and rugs, Americans began flocking to Arctic communities such as Arctic Bay, Clyde River, Grise Fiord and Resolute. “The American market really revved up,” says Jerome Knap, president of Ottawa-based Canada North Outfitting and one of the early instigators of the North’s trophy-hunt industry. “We went from four [American] clients to 35 or 40 a year.” Today Americans make up roughly 70 percent of visiting hunters (Europeans, Canadians and Mexicans are next in line). Foreigners pay anywhere from $18,000 to $25,000 for a hunt, which gets them 10 days on the tundra with a guide and a chance to kill the world’s largest land carnivore.

Most of the fee goes directly to the local outfitter (who usually puts it back into fuel, ammunition and licence fees), while around 15 percent goes to southern agencies like Knap’s, which advertise and help coordinate hunts. For more than a decade, the sport hunt has been an all-around good deal. Americans are happily dropping big money in small Arctic communities, offering guides like Boogie and James Pokiak a solid income and a way to be on the land doing what they love.

But recently, the future of the industry has started looking shaky. Some bear populations are shrinking, and biologists have been finding smaller bears and fewer cubs. For the first time, they’re pointing the finger at global warming.

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WITH ALL THE SYRINGES and mysterious vials stashed in boxes around his room, you’d think Andrew Derocher was some kind of drug dealer. The bearded University of Alberta biologist is padding around his overheated Tuktoyaktuk boarding room in bare feet, waiting for the weather to clear so he and his grad student, Seth Cherry, can get back in the chopper. This is where the syringes come in.

For the next three weeks, Derocher and Cherry will scan for polar bears 75 metres above the frozen Beaufort Sea. When they spot one, their pilot will hover close enough for Derocher to shoot a tranquilizer dart into the bear’s rump, knocking it out cold. Then Cherry has about an hour to measure its length, girth and head size; extract a tooth, a string of fat and claw shavings; and slip on the satellite radio collar that will track its movement for the next 14 months.

So far, Derocher’s multi-year results show that Beaufort bears are getting shorter, and fewer cubs are surviving. “We think the bears are having a harder time finding food,” he says. “The challenge for them is to stay in contact with ice (for seal hunting). And the thick multi-year ice is retracting farther north every year.” Derocher’s also seen the gruesome remains of cannibalism – male bears eating females – a practice not totally unheard of by Inuit hunters, but still uncommon. “We’re not sure what it means,” he says. “But I call it a symptom of climate change.”

Elsewhere in the Arctic, scientists are quite sure that climate change is harming bears. Ranging around northern Manitoba and Nunavut’s Kivalliq region, the polar bear population of the West Hudson Bay has decreased by 22 percent since 1987. Body mass is down, and females aren’t birthing as many cubs. Compared to 20 years ago when research began, ice now breaks up three weeks earlier, pushing bears ashore at a time when they should be consuming newborn seal-pups and amassing the calories they’ll need to get through the summer.

“An adult female used to be 210 centimetres (from nose to tail), and 20 years later the average is 185 – it’s a noticeable change,” says Derocher of the West Hudson Bay animals. “A population that changes like that won’t be able to sustain the same harvest levels.”
At times, however, the Nunavut government has seemed to think otherwise. In January 2005 the territory’s wildlife board
announced a hike in the polar bear hunting quota of 28 percent – that’s 115 more bear hunts (either subsistence or sport) allowed annually. Even the troubled West Hudson Bay quota rose by nine, to 56 bears.

The announcement drew fire from every direction. An international team of scientists known as the Polar Bear Specialist Group publicly called for Nunavut’s decision to be reversed, and, shortly after, listed polar bears as “vulnerable” under the World Conservation Union’s “red list” of threatened species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service demanded Nunavut provide documentation on how the quota increases were decided, especially for those based solely on “traditional Inuit knowledge” rather than field-data and scientific modelling. (The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement mandates Inuit knowledge be incorporated into decisions on resource management.) Nunavut officials argued quota hikes for bears around Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, Foxe Basin and West Hudson Bay had been based on residents’ reports of more bear encounters in communities. Scientists were doubtful. “They’re coming into town because they’re hungry,” says Derocher. “That’s not necessarily because there are more bears.”

On-the-ground observations by land-savvy Inuit have long butted heads with scientists’ elaborate modelling calculus. Like dogs meeting for the first time, both sides warily sniff at each other, acknowledging but not necessarily accepting each other. “Some years we don’t see bears, but us native people aren’t afraid they’re dying,” says Boogie Pokiak in Tuktoyaktuk. “We just know that something happened in the food chain, or they’re concentrating somewhere else. If a scientist doesn’t see bears, they start fear-mongering.”

In the case of the quota controversy, Nunavut eventually heeded the scientists’ warnings and, this fall, dispatched biologists to the West Hudson Bay to begin field studies. Meanwhile, international scrutiny continued. Shortly after the quota hullabaloo, a California-based advocacy group called the Center for Biological Diversity filed a 170-page petition calling on the U.S. government to list polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

“The polar bear likely faces global extinction in the wild by the end of this century as a result of global warming. The species’ sea ice habitat is literally melting away,” reads the first line of the report, authored by staff attorneys Kassie Siegel and Brendan Cummings. If the U.S. does list polar bears as a threatened species, the animals will be protected only by red tape. Proponents of any development or exploration projects that might threaten bear habitat will simply have to jump through more hoops.

The designation’s intended result, according to Siegel, is to publicize the nastiness of global warming. Over the past few years, Siegel has written similar appeals to protect less sexy species, like the Kittlitz’s murrelet, a small diving seabird that nests in Alaska and eastern Russia, as well as two species of Caribbean coral. But the campaigns didn’t drum up the kind of hype polar bears have stirred.

“The polar bear is an iconic species and people really care about them,” says Siegel from her Joshua Tree office. “People have trouble responding to threats they perceive as abstract and in the future. But by drawing attention to the bears’ plight, it helps demonstrate that the threat is here and now, and we have to act immediately.”

After sifting through reams of submitted comments and scientific studies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is due to make its decision in January. It’s not clear how the listing would affect the sport hunt – it may not – though many think it’ll trigger changes in other marine-mammal legislation, wiping out trophy-import provisions and thus prohibiting hunters from bringing home bear hides. From his position as a booking agent, Jerome Knap thinks the industry is “as good as dead” if hides can’t come back with hunters.

As someone who’s studied the implications of the 1983 sealskin market collapse, McGill University’s George Wenzel can’t help but compare it with today’s polar bear campaign. “If the listing goes through then I’m really afraid there’ll be a cascade effect and Europe will ban importation,” he says. “People down south have the luxury – just like they had with seals – of saying the best thing is to just put an end to the hunt. It doesn’t cost them anything.”

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BACK IN THE POKIAK KITCHEN in Tuktoyaktuk, Rusty ponders his government’s impending decision, one that he’s sure could spell the end of polar bear trophy hunts. “I have a 30-by-40-foot trophy room at home,” he says. “It would be silly of me to spend $25,000 to shoot an animal and not be able to bring it back.”

With the Beaufort bears in Boogie Pokiak’s own backyard potentially heading for trouble, the Inuk guide remains stoic. “If things get bad for polar bears, we harvesters realize that sport hunting will be the first to go – no question,” he says. “But I’m a hunter; it’s my life. Every time I shoot a bear, there’s a sinking feeling in my heart. You feel the excitement of the hunt, and also sorry when you see them dead. But you know you need it for income, and the food is good. And you take comfort in that.”

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