WWF undertakes polar bear denning study in Nunavut
"You definitely want to ensure that denning habitat is protected"
There’s a lot of knowledge about polar bears living in the southern parts of Arctic, but not about the habits of bears from the more northern areas of their range.
That’s a gap researchers with the World Wildlife Federation hope to fill with help from Inuit hunters.
The WWF is funding a polar bear denning survey in the Foxe basin, whose goal is to show the areas with polar bear dens — and protect them from future resource developers.
The survey will show where female polar bears raise their young.
This is important, said Vicki Sahanatien of the WWF office in Iqaluit.
“When you think about polar bear populations, you definitely want to ensure that denning habitat is protected, so that females are undisturbed when they’re nursing their young in their dens,” Sahanatien said.
Much is known about denning in places like Churchill, Manitoba, the Beaufort Sea and Southampton Island, she said, “but in many regions, such as the High Arctic, they’re not.”
For now, the WWF project will concentrate on collecting information about polar bear dens in the area surrounding the Foxe Basin near the communities of Coral Harbour, Repulse, Igloolik, Hall Beach, and Kimmirut.
Polar bear denning around these areas is documented in “a lot of reports by government, scientists, and Inuit knowledge,” said Sahanatien, but the information is scattered.
The WWF project wants to bring “the scientific and traditional knowledge together into one report and data set for people to use,” she said.
This will be indispensable for local communities and the protection of the bears, she said.
The federal government has listed polar bears “of special concern,” a status that environmental impact assessments for resource development projects in Nunavut must take into account.
So, “it’s important to know where the polar bears are denning to fully assess the impacts of those projects,” Sahanatien said.
Project leader Stephen Petersen and his research team in Winnipeg have spent the past year collecting information on denning in the Foxe Basin.
Scant research has been done on the area since the 1970s, Peterson said, with most information coming from Inuit.
“The first step is to pull all of that information together,” he said, then present it, and set up a den-monitoring plan with people in the communities to keep tabs on how polar bear behaviour and the environment is changing.
“So that when industry comes knocking, you can say ‘we have 10 years of recorded data and 1,000 years of traditional ecological knowledge that says (for example) don’t go here at this time of year or if you see this, stop what you’re doing.’”
Petersen, who is also head of the conservation and research section at Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, said his team will publish a summary of their work in about two months, including a draft of their monitoring program for the communities.
The project “is really about coming up with something for the communities,” he said.