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Another Look at the Polar Bear in Canada

A polar bear on the hunt - and being huntedI wrote last week on a controversial decision by the US Fish & Wildlife service to delay a scheduled recommendation to Department of Interior Director Dirk Kempthorne for consideration of listing the Polar Bear as threatened under the endangered species act.

Several environmental groups have threatened to sue the government to force quicker action on “deciding the fate” of the polar bear.

Now Arctic Inuit groups have accused these groups of using the polar bear as a means of attacking the Bush administration on its stand on climate change, is not considering the full complexity of the issue, and instead is thinking in “overly simplistic black-and-white terms”.

“The polar bear is a very important subsistence, economic, cultural, conservation, management, and rights concern for Inuit in Canada”, say Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit of Canada group.

Two-thirds of the estimated 25,000 polar bears live in Canada, and most of them are in the Arctic territory of the Nunavut. Officials from the Nunavut acknowledge there are “areas of concern”, but don’t think things are as bad for the bear as scientists and environmentalists claim, saying that “in general” the bears are “doing well”.

But both Canadian and American scientists do not agree. Dr. Peter Erwins, director of species conservation at World Wildlife Fund Canada told Reuters “Things are trending very poorly right now for a number of these polar bear populations”. Several studies from the US Geological Survey indicate that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will be be gone by 2050 if climate models regarding Arctic sea ice are accurate – something that is in ever greater doubt as it becomes apparent that models predicting sea ice melt have been too conservative, putting the polar bear in even greater potential peril sooner.

I certainly have respect for native Canadians pursuing their culture, including subsistence hunting. My problem is that isn’t what we appear to be talking about.

The problem is certainly an economic one for the Inuit, but it doesn’t consist of any deep cultural heritage or traditional way-of-life issue. It’s business. It’s about American hunters going to Canada to bag themselves a polar bear.

Hunters spend about 3.5 million Canadian dollars looking for polar bears to shoot, at a cost of up to $30,000 a pop.

Obviously, listing the polar bear as threatened would keep all those law-abiding Americans at home, thus damaging an economy where the cost of living and unemployment is high.

I don’t mean to belittle the situation, or make too much of a knee-jerk judgment regarding prize-hunting of the animals. Obviously the lack of income the hunters provide could have a devastating effect on the native population of the far north in Canada, thus truly effecting their culture and traditional way of life.

But are we just postponing the inevitable by doing nothing to help preserve the polar bear population?

If the polar bear is in the peril that most scientists and biologist who study the animal believe, then is there really much future for an economy that relies so heavily on foreign “sport” hunters? Is it realistic to expect those hunters to continue to spend such a pretty penny even as the bear population dwindles? And what then?

Change is inevitable. It may not be fair or just or easy, but it is not only coming – it is already here.

It occurs to me that if a major portion of an economy depends on American hunters willing to pay big bucks to shoot a polar bear, then, at least in the long run, it doesn’t really make that much difference if the US government puts the polar bear on a list or not – the writing is already on the wall.

The bigger question is what can be done to help preserve the native Inuit culture and economy without such reliance on American hunters. It is indeed a complex issue, but I fear that native Canadians are clinging to an economic model that is simply not sustainable and longer works.

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