The WWF labels polar bears as vulnerable, so why is the word on the street this year that polar bears are doing just fine?
A 2017 video of a starving polar bear went viral. The emaciated bear dragged itself slowly, nibbling on a discarded seat from a snowmobile. People everywhere were up in arms.
But only a year later, the government of Nunavut drafted a report claiming an abundance of polar bears were posing a threat to Inuit people.
So what’s the truth?
Are Polar Bears a Threatened Species?
Polar bears are classified as a vulnerable species by the World Wildlife Foundation and have been on the United States’ Endangered Species list as “threatened” since 2008.
Polar bears are marine animals that spend more than half their time hunting for food on the ice of the Arctic Ocean. Their high-fat diet consists primarily of seal meat, and a polar bear is lucky to catch one in every five seals it goes after.
As climate change decimates the polar bear’s available hunting territory, polar bears are having a hard time finding enough food. It is especially perilous for bears on dry land, like the polar bear in the viral video. They are marine animals after all, who move and hunt more efficiently in water.
Polar bears are also hunted in a long-standing Inuit tradition. A polar bear skin goes for $10,000 or more, while the meat is divided up and shared for food. The Canadian government is hesitant to make the traditional hunt illegal for cultural reasons but have imposed rules and restrictions to avoid overhunting.
So Is the Report Wrong?
In addition to an increased number of polar bear encounters, two Inuit men were killed in polar bear attacks over the summer of 2018. One was on hunting trip, the other, unarmed, died protecting his children. Locals complain they are now forced to carry a gun whenever they want to enjoy the outdoors. Both of these deaths occurred outside community borders.
Polar bears are formidable creatures armed with teeth and claws. So they are definitely something to be cautious about. It’s true that polar bears are appearing in communities, and locals have been forced to think about protection.
The report is criticized for its strong reliance on Inuit knowledge, as opposed to Western Science. As a people, the Inuit have observed and relied upon their Arctic landscape for thousands of years. Many concerned residents believe the government needs to prioritize Inuit lives over the polar bears.
The report further states that “[Inuit knowledge] acknowledges that polar bears are exposed to the effects of climate change, but suggests that they are adaptable.” Environment Canada responded that the report is “not in alignment with scientific evidence”.
What Are Scientists Saying?
Researchers agree there has been an increase of polar bears venturing into Northern communities, but they do not agree that overpopulation is the cause. Instead, scientists say climate change is to blame. Forcing polar bears out of their usual hunting grounds out of desperation for food. The species is still vulnerable.
As Arctic ice melts, food supplies dwindle, and so polar bears have started to adapt. They have followed the smell of food into human communities. Just like raccoons or even coyotes, they have started to teach themselves a new way to survive.
Is There A Solution?
The government of Canada imposed a quota system in the 1970s that is still in effect today. Its purpose is to regulate the polar bear hunt and conserve the polar bear population while accounting for the requirements of the Inuit population. There have been many complaints that the quota has gone down in recent years.
Many communities are frustrated that the polar bear has become a symbol for climate change. Who would want to be painted as a villain to the world, when all they are trying to do is protect their own?
There have been several solutions proposed by Inuit Communities to manage the threat of polar bears. Pond Inlet wants permission to kill any bear within 1km from the community border, without affecting their quota. Other proposed plans focus on education and bear safety for both individuals and communities.
Climate researchers propose that the only solution to the polar bear problem is to protect our environment. Preserve their icy Arctic habitats and polar bears will have no need to wander into human territory. Unfortunately, we may be beyond that point.
Some communities, such as Churchill, Manitoba, have learned to coexist with polar bears. Their polar bear alert program works to protect both humans and polar bears. Strategies include a voluntary curfew at 10 pm, and all car doors to remain unlocked in case passersby need a safe place to hide. When a bear approaches the town, the alert team will first try to scare it away with a loud noise like a siren or car horn. They keep the problem bears in a “polar bear jail” holding area, before relocating them by helicopter.
The community of Arviat, Nunavut, was home to Aaron Gibbons, who died protecting his children from a polar bear. Arviat already had a Polar Bear Patrol in place, much like Churchill’s alert program. In 2016, the program successfully deterred 205 bears and relocated 25. Only 4 bears were killed in defense.
Check out this guide to polar bear safety to learn more.