Top polar bear scientists warn population isn’t as “abundant” as reported
"Canada's management has drifted...to one seeking maximum harvest levels with fewer safeguards"
EDMONTON — Two of Canada’s top polar bear scientists have warned that recent attempts to justify an increase in the hunting of the storied animal in western Hudson Bay could lead to trade sanctions against Canada.
University of Alberta scientists Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher say the population is neither as “abundant” nor as “healthy” as a Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. claimed last week when it used the preliminary results of a recent survey to justify an increase in the annual harvest.
NTI says preliminary results from the Nunavut government survey contradict previous reports by Stirling, Derocher and other scientists who have been tracking polar bears in this region for the past 40 years. They say it also vindicates Inuit hunters who insist there are more bears than ever.
Suggesting that the research was “faulty,” as Nunavut Tunngavik stated in a news release, is both “untrue and inflammatory,” says Stirling.
“The Nunavut aerial survey estimated the population to be between 717 and 1,430. This aerial survey-based estimate is not significantly different from the 2004 estimate of 934 bears we did, which was based on more reliable mark-recapture studies in Manitoba.”
Lost in the debate, says Stirling, is the fact that the polar bears of western Hudson Bay might be producing only 20 to 50 per cent as many cubs as they did 30 years ago when the bears had a month or more time to hunt seals on the sea ice.
Now that global warming is forcing the bears to spend more time on land where there is virtually no food, females are on average 30 to 40 kilograms lighter than they were in the early 1980s and producing far fewer cubs, says Stirling. Those cubs that are born are now less likely than they were in the past to live beyond two years, the age at which they became independent adults.
This isn’t the only challenge the Canadian and Nunavut governments face, notes Derocher. Canada’s ability to export polar bear hides, he points out, could be in jeopardy at the March 2013 meeting of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
“Canada’s management has drifted from a precautionary sustainable approach that worked well for the last 40 years to one seeking maximum harvest levels with fewer safeguards. If Canada doesn’t move back to this conservative and precautionary approach, the international community will dictate trade to the detriment of Inuit hunters and the collapse of international trade.”
Stirling says he has the greatest respect for Inuit traditional knowledge and observations. But he doubts that experts with CITES will accept a point of view that appears to be influenced largely on anecdotal evidence of more bears coming into the communities and hunting camps if it is not supported by scientific data on the size, survival rates, and reproductive success of the population.
Progress in polar bear conservation can only occur if everyone works together, using information from all possible sources, scientific and traditional, says Stirling.