The Real Threat to the Ice Bear

The transformation of the ice bear into an icon to justify new regulations has more to do with politics than real environmental danger. Inuit communities are managing the species at a very high standard.
Published on April 5, 2007

In the over-hyped world of environmental policy, certain species have achieved an iconic status, some like baby seals for their cuteness or the tiger for its fierceness, others even for their weirdness (remember the furbish lousewort?). Due to a mix of international politics, science, and the pre-conceived agendas of powerful interests from all sides of the political spectrum, other species have become potent symbols in their own right. Enter the polar bear, Ursus arctos, one of the most awe-inspiring creatures ever to have walked the earth.

Sometimes called “ice bears” for their reliance on the Arctic ice pack where they spend most of their time hunting seals and growing fat on the rich, oily fare only a seal can offer, polar bears are also a prize catch for Inuit hunters. Over the centuries, in the harshest environment on earth, polar bear hunting has evolved from a “catch as catch can” effort using dogs to track the animal, followed by a perilous fight to the finish with primitive weapons – and the final outcome often in doubt – to a modern, managed hunt using firearms.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about this species. Polar bears have recently graced the front pages, editorial sections and newscasts of major media right across North America. Two seemingly unrelated issues prompted this attention, namely how many polar bears can (or should) be killed by hunters each year and the extent to which climate change may be affecting them.

The United States government is mulling over whether to declare the polar bear a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. This would devastate the economies of many remote Inuit communities.

Most of the small villages in polar bear country are allocated a scientifically calculated quota which dictates the number of bears they can harvest. Through local hunter and trapper associations, the Inuit then decide whether to take the bears themselves or whether to sell the tag to visiting hunters. The price charged outsiders for a polar bear hunt is approximately $30,000, a princely sum for places with few other economic opportunities. Local Inuit guide visitors and are paid accordingly. The demand for these hunts far outstrips the number of available tags.

Ever quick to seize a publicity opportunity on the backs of poor rural people, anti-hunting groups have decried these “sport” hunts. They are now using the climate change issue as a club – no pun on seal hunting intended! – to force a reduction in the number of bears that can be harvested.

In the January 3, 2007 issue of the Ottawa Citizen, a U.S. Greenpeace spokesperson, Kert Davies, stated: “We were basically seeking to draw attention, through the bears, to the Bush administration’s failure to act. . . . If they read the law the way we do,” he added, “it will force the government to consider the negative impacts of its actions on global warming, and avoid those.”

That’s making the Canadian polar bear hunt a political football in an attempt to discredit an unpopular U.S. administration. Bush’s people, however, face little political risk in acceding to the demands of Greenpeace. It’s always easier to denounce non-voting foreigners than it is to make tough choices at home; you look good at no political cost. The U.S. Department of the Interior is reviewing the polar bear population data and expects to make a decision in late 2007.

Indeed, they should “do the math.” And the math is on the side of the Inuit. As a January 3, 2007, editorial in the Wall Street Journal noted: “…there are in fact more polar bears in the world now than there were 40 years ago. The main threat to polar bears in recent decades has been from hunting, with estimates as low as 5,000 to 10,000 bears in the 1950s and 1960s. But thanks to conservation efforts, and some cross-border cooperation among the U.S., Canada and Russia, the best estimate today is that the polar bear population is 20,000 to 25,000.”

Numbers like these show there are ample bears to provide for a sustainable and economically sound harvest. Since the sustainability of the polar bear hunt is not in doubt, that fact begs another question. The American government is free to wreak economic disaster on its own Inuit in Alaska. But to what extent should foreigners meddle in the internal affairs of another country?

The Canadian polar bear population is managed to a high standard with full participation by local and aboriginal people. Whether it be seals on the East coast or forestry on the West coast, well-funded international environmental and animal-rights groups are seeking to destroy the sustainability of Canada’s rural economies in order to line their coffers. The misery that this has caused to Canada’s fragile winterland communities is incalculable and simply must stop.

To them and the American government, Canada should say: Mind your own business, please.

A version of this article appeared originally in the National Post April 5, 2007.

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