Share This Story
Submit this story

The Canadian government has listed polar bears as a “species of special concern” under the Species at Risk Act, a move that has various people up in arms, though for opposing reasons.

Inuit people are wary of any more restrictions being placed on the hunting of this spiritually revered animal and are worried about public safety given an increasing number of bears wandering through communities, while environmentalists think the ruling doesn’t go far enough in protecting the bears.

Both camps spoke out on November 10 after Environment Canada published its ruling.

“ITK expects Inuit from the four Inuit land claim regions will be invited to be closely involved by the federal government in the development of this national management plan to ensure that Inuit rights and land claims obligations and processes will be adhered to and protected,” the Inuit advocacy group Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami said in a statement. “Key among Inuit expectations is the increased involvement and use of Inuit Traditional Knowledge in the polar bear research and management decision-making processes.”

This knowledge was deployed in a three-day series of meetings in October in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, attended by 27 delegates of Inuit national and regional organizations, ITK said in an October 6 statement, as well as wildlife management boards from Nunavik, Nunatsiavut, Nunavut and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. Attendees also included representatives from the territorial governments of NWT, Nunavut and the federal ministry of Environment Canada.

The workshop’s agenda called for drafting a protocol for aligning ATK and science to they would complement each other when it comes to polar bear research and management.

High on the list of Inuit concerns is the fact that the number of polar bears is increasing, which is causing them to be a danger as they wander, hungry, into communities. Another concern is that current international agreements on polar bear maintenance do not include much ATK.

Gabriel Nirlungayuk, the director of wildlife at Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., served as a delegate to meetings about polar bear strategy that took place at the end of October and met with officials from Denmark (Greenland), Norway, the United States and Russia on October 24. He told the Nunatsiaq News that he saw too much science and not enough on-the-ground Inuit hunting knowledge in the bear-management equation.

“Our concern is there’s a lot of scientific information,” Nirlungayuk told the Nunatsiaq News after the international summit. “And it’s very expensive to do scientific studies. [But] there are a lot of boundaries for [polar bear] sub-populations that haven’t been inventoried. What we feel could fill the gap is traditional knowledge, but it’s not widely considered.”

ITK echoed this after the Environment Canada ruling.

The Center for Biological Diversity, though, was of a different mind.

“The Canadian government this week denied important and urgently needed protections for polar bears under the country’s Species At Risk Act. Instead of listing the imperiled bears as “threatened” or “endangered,” the government designated the bears as a “species of special concern,” which affords the bears no substantive protections,” the Center for Biological Diversity said in a media release on November 10.

“Canada is turning a blind eye to the deep trouble that polar bears are in. This designation is absurd in light of the science, ongoing population declines, and the increasingly frequent incidences of polar bears starving and drowning,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, in the statement.

The institute sued to get polar bears protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“The bear clearly warrants listing as at least ‘threatened,’ and more likely, ‘endangered,’ ” Siegel said. “Canada needs to acknowledge the scale of the climate crisis and the fact that we need deep and rapid greenhouse pollution reductions to protect both polar bears and people.”

Caught in the middle, of course, are the bears themselves. And what they are caught in is a lack of ice, as their habitat literally melts. In fact, the U.S. government came under fire from Native groups in Alaska back in January for designating a polar bear habitat by way of protection. No amount of regulation can bring the ice back, they said.

“Canada is home to two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population and we have a unique conservation responsibility to effectively care for them,” Environment Canada spokesman Mark Johnson told The Star.

Now that the bear is listed, the government has started the clock ticking on a three-year period during which it must create a preservation plan to stabilize the polar bear population. At issue specifically are the bears of the Western Hudson Bay and Southern Beaufort Sea, which are attributable at least in part to climate change, according to The Star, and Kane Basin and Baffin Bay, which is caused by over-harvesting.

Between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears live in five countries within the Arctic Circle—Canada, the U.S., Russia, Norway and Greenland—with 15,000 of them in Canada. The five nations already have a National Polar Bear Conservation Strategy in place. The management plan will build on this strategy, Environment Canada said in a media statement.

“Environment Canada held extensive consultations with provincial and territorial governments, regional wildlife management boards, aboriginal peoples and other stakeholders,” the statement said. “The vast majority supported the listing.”