The Canadian territory of Nunavut occupies almost 1/5th of that country but is home to only about 30,000 people — and quite a few polar bears. The territory is occupied largely by Inuit who have long hunted polar bear, and is also home to a multi-million dollar industry in selling polar bear hunting permits to foreigners.
But how the annual polar bear quota is managed and how to best optimize the money earned from the hunt are topics that came to the fore this summer.
In July, the Polar Bear Specialist Group warned that as the Arctic appears to be shrinking from the increase in global temperatures, polar bear habitat is likely to decline as well which could put population pressures on the polar bear. It warned that by 2055, the polar bear population worldwide could decline by up to 30 percent.
Scott Schliebe, a researcher with the Polar Bear Specialist Group, told the CBC News,
We’re seeing some fairly significant reductions in the actual area that pack ice occupies in the Arctic, and we’re seeing some thinning in the thickness of the ice.
Schliebe and his fellow researchers issued their warning after Nunavut announced it was going to increase polar bear quotas for 2005. Again, Schliebe told the CBC News that his group believes Nunavut has overestimated the number of polar bears, adding that,
We would like those levels to be adjusted to the current population abundance estimate, 950 animals, and we would like the adjustment to be calculated as sustainable over time,
Nunavut announced in January that it was increasing the 2005 quote by 28 percent, saying that the population of polar bears is on the increase. But if the CBC is to be believed, its method of determining the polar bear population leaves a lot to be desired,
Nunavut’s environment minister, Olayuk Akesuk, says government officials decided to increase the quota after consulting with Inuit elders and hunters about how much the bear population has increased.
He said the government is open to making more decisions like this on the basis of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or traditional knowledge.
“We will respect more the say of the community and we want to see more of Inuit knowledge and western science included into one,” he said.
Especially given the potential profit from polar bears, such increases should be based on sound scientific estimates of the number of polar bears, not hunters opinion about the status of the bear population.
When it comes to profiting off of the bear hunt, however, an economic study of the bear hunt suggests that Nunavut is not maximizing the money it could make off the hunt. In a study funded by Nunavat and the Safari Club, Dr. George Wenzel of McGill University found that of the $2.9 million hunters spend on the polar bear hunt, only half of that ends up in the pockets of the Inuit.
One of Wenzel’s major findings was that the Inuit may be underpricing polar bear tags. Currently it only charges $30,000 to $35,000, depending on the specific locale, to hunt a polar bear. Wenzel noted that in contrast U.S. hunters pay up to $400,0000 to hunt bighorn sheep in Alberta. As Wenzel told Nunatsiaq News,
If you can sell a sheep for that much, I’m sure you could sell a polar bear for more money than is coming in.
Currently, only about 50 polar bear hunt tags are sold to outside hunters. The rest are used by traditional Inuit hunters. Wenzel estimated that if Nunavut sold all its polar bear tags to outsiders, it could increase its income from the hunt to $14 million annually even if it stuck with the current $30,000 to $35,000 price.
Nunavut hunters can kill more polar bears this year. CBC News, January 10, 2005.
Rethink polar bear hunt quotas, scientists tell Nunavut hunters. CBC News, July 4, 2005.
Boost price for polar bear hunt, researcher says. John Thompson, Nunatsiaq News, August 26, 2005.