Douglas Clark, a professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability, has found that humans are doing more harm than good to polar bears in trying to ban hunting the animals.
He is part of an international team called the Arctic Resilience Report — a group tasked with seeing how vulnerable the Arctic is to sudden shocks and changes to its ecosystem and how humans are affected. The team discovered that these changes to the Arctic ecosystem are not in fact approaching but actually have been underway for quite some time.
“This is no longer a future prospect. The future arrived a while ago,” Clark said.
In 2007, the Arctic sea ice extent — the total area covered by ice — suddenly decreased by one-third over the long-term average and reached a new low in 2012 at 4.1 million square kilometres.
“We are all invested in causing this and to change course has huge consequences.
“It’s very far from clear that we can still fix this,” Clark said. “It’s very, very likely that we are past the point of being able to save the Arctic in the state that it is right now.”
Polar bears making their home on the Arctic ice are being greatly affected by the increasing temperatures. They will not likely disappear as the ice continues to melt, but it is unknown how they will adapt to the disappearance of their natural habitat.
“We are in the middle of a very, very big change in the Arctic and we don’t know what it means,” Clark said.
Despite the concerns of melting Arctic ice, a focus on polar bear hunting overshadows their loss of habitat. Those who condemn and oppose hunting polar bears may have good intentions, but are really bringing light away from the true problem of climate change, Clark said.
Of the five nations that allow polar bear hunting — including the United States, Norway, Russia and Denmark — Canada is the only one that allows tags for polar bear sport hunting on top of hunting permits for Indigenous residents.
The process has been debated and fought and Clark says it is often portrayed as a “lucrative, commercial hunt, which has all kinds of different connotations. It is certainly not that.”
Every community in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories annually negotiates a quota with the territorial governments to determine the number of polar bears that can be hunted. This quota is set based on the current polar bear population and is not influenced by market prices or demand for polar bear, but rather the amount that is sustainable. Communities then decide if they want to sell their tags to sport hunters.
“No community has ever chosen to sell all its tags,” Clark said, adding that groups usually sell about 22 per cent of their tags.
Clark said the results from this economizing are huge even though only about one in five tags are redeemed. With temperatures around -60 C, hunters need clothing crafted from animal skins by local women, who also prepare the hide if the hunter gets a bear.
Polar bear hunts are also highly regulated — it is illegal to hunt with any sort of motorized vehicle: boats, aircraft or land transport, including snowmobiles.
“The hunter and the guide have to travel by dogsled,” Clark said. The hunters are usually wealthy — some arriving in their own jets — and they can afford to be selective in their prey. He said that if the hunters don’t find a big enough bear, they won’t shoot one and their tag will be cancelled.
“Having sport hunting, actually, counter-intuitively, means that fewer polar bears end up getting killed,” Clark said.
The Inuit can fill a tag if they have one. However, they may hunt as they see fit under their land claim though they may not be as concerned about getting a trophy bear.
The complexity of this issue makes it difficult for people to understand what is really going on. Clark said polar bear hunting in Canada is “very tightly regulated, only conducted by Aboriginal people and they’re the ones making the decisions about whether they sell any of their tags to sport hunters or not.”
Negative media coverage of polar bear hunting takes away the focus from the immediate and drastic effects of global warming and climate change. Saying that stopping the hunt will save the bears is entirely inaccurate, Clark said.
“Campaigns like this are not in the best interest of either the species or the people whose livelihoods depend on them,” Clark said. “Local voices tend to get marginalized in national and international decisions around polar bears.”
The U of S Office of Sustainability is preparing for International Polar Bear Day on Feb. 27, when the public is encouraged to adjust their thermostat to reduce carbon emissions.