The hunt for polar bear sustainability

By Sydney Stokoe

It can’t be easy being a polar bear. When they aren’t busy losing their territory to climate change, they’re trying not to be one of the 176 bears killed in the annual polar bear hunt. Hunted bears are split between Baffin Bay and Greenland. 108 hunting permits are handed out in Canada, while Greenland distributes 68. The combined numbers have been deemed unsustainable by both government and environmental groups. Last year, the numbers were reviewed and a reduction in the hunting quota was suggested. It was subsequently ignored.

The Nunavut government has asked that the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board cut the number of bears in the Canadian portion of the hunt down to 64, the same number that was suggested (and ignored) last year. Hunters aren’t keen on the idea that the animal they love to chase could be in serious trouble, claiming that contrary to numbers shown in research, the polar bear population has actually risen in the Baffin Bay area. Their argument is based on the number of bears sighted by locals. Bear tracking research suggests otherwise.

Why is it, then, that more bears are being spotted? In a nutshell, climate change. Polar bears have long inhabited the ice flows in the Baffin Bay area and, due to rising temperatures, these ice flows have been melting, leaving the bears with nowhere to go but the land. Their living space is quite literally vanishing beneath their furry paws. With such a massive reduction of territory, it seems obvious that bear sightings have become more frequent.

Hunters are less than pleased about their bear hunting prospects for the coming year. There was a point in time when the hunt was a necessary part of life. There was a point in time when all parts of the bear were used to support the daily lives of the northern people. However, in today’s society, is it really necessary? Cultural importance of the bear hunt only goes so far before it crosses into mistreatment of nature. Considering how recently the bears were on the endangered species list — less than four decades ago — it wouldn’t take much for the scales to tip back.

Since 1988, polar bear populations have dropped by 22 per cent in the Baffin Bay region. Given our current precarious environmental situation, it’s more important than ever that we allow for the success of such an important species.

The Nunavut Wildlife Management Board is contemplating three choices: they either set the quota at 64 bears, review the quota altogether or put a moratorium on the entire hunt. Officials are expected to reach a decision some time in the next week.

Being the top of the northern food chain, a healthy bear population keeps the rest of the food chain in check. A diminished bear population would lead to a boom in the seal population. A bigger seal population would, in effect, lead to more seals to club during the annual seal hunt. And quite honestly, that’s a big enough mess as it is.

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