January 18, 2008

Bear litigation a ploy, say Inuit groups

Environmentalists’ lawsuit “is not very constructive, but meant for publicity.”

JOHN THOMPSON

The push by environmentalists to have polar bears declared a threatened species by the U.S. is a cynical ploy that puts politics ahead of science, says Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapariit Kanatami.

Three environmental groups announced last week they would sue the U.S. government for missing its deadline to decide whether polar bears should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. In response, ITK and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference issued a joint press release Jan. 14 that condemns the groups.

Simon said environmentalists are "using the polar bear for political reasons against the Bush administration over greenhouse gas emissions, and as Inuit we fundamentally disagree with such tactics."

On Jan. 7 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it needed another 30 days to decide whether polar bears should be classified as "threatened" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace USA, said "the science confirms that the polar bear is endangered, but the Bush administration continues to downplay the danger of global warming and delay any action to address the issue."

Dale Hall, director of the USFWS, said the agency needs more time because of the enormous complexity of the problem, and the huge public response - they have received more than 500,000 letters on the matter.

Duane Smith, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, said he'd prefer the USFWS spend another month deliberating than make a hasty decision, "which is why this lawsuit is not very constructive, but meant for publicity."

If polar bears receive the "threatened" designation, they would be the first species to receive endangered species protection due to climate change.

Such protection would likely prevent U.S. sport hunters from returning home from Nunavut with a polar bear trophy, and end an industry worth about $2 million each year to Inuit guides.

Smith said the polar bear sport hunt provides much-needed money to some of Nunavut's smallest communities, and allows Inuit to keep their culture alive by supporting dog team owners and distributing meat to the community.

"We are able to continue with our culture, enjoy the benefits of what we use, and ensure that this is done in a responsible and sustainable manner."

Simon also defended the management regimes used by Nunavut and other jurisdictions to limit the number of bears hunted.

Last year the Nunavut government flip-flopped when it finally acknowledged that polar bears on the western Hudson Bay were declining in number.

Canadian Wildlife Service studies had said this much for years, but Nunavut had long sided with local hunters, who continue to insist there are lots of bears in the area.

Among the information considered by Hall and his scientists is a series of reports prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey, which warns that two-thirds of the world's polar bears will die off in the next 50 years due to melting sea ice.

If this grim prediction comes true, the only polar bears remaining in the world by 2050 would live in Canada's Arctic archipelago and on the west coast of Greenland. Those in Alaska and Russia, and in much of Nunavut and all of Nunavik, will have perished.

These predictions are based on mathematical projections that assume that, as sea ice melts, polar bears will lose their platform to hunt seals, which is their primary food source. Over time, they predict bears will lose weight, have trouble reproducing, and dwindle in number.

Canadian Wildlife Service researchers working on the western Hudson Bay have already found polar bears matching this description. The bear population in that area has been declining for a number of years - although bears appear to be thriving in an even more southern area, Davis Straight, according to Nunavut researchers.

And some contrary evidence suggests that polar bears may have survived past Arctic thaws. In December, researchers from Iceland and Norway announced they discovered the ancient jaw of a polar bear buried in an island of Svalbard. They say the jaw is at least 100,000 years old - a time before the last ice age, even warmer than the present.

There are believed to be 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears alive today. Two-thirds of them live in Canada.

Another side-effect of the "threatened" designation, which is one step below listing polar bears as "endangered," could be the imposition of limits on the development of oil and gas in Alaska.