Polar Bears In A Snowstorm

Part III: "Do The Inuit Know Something That North Carolinians Don't?"

Polar bears are the largest carnivorous land mammal, yet they can look so cute in pictures -- fuzzy cubs playing in the snow, peering out with little black eyes -- or majestic adult bears floating on pieces of iceberg, fearsome yet vulnerable. Long part of the Inuit culture, the bears live on the polar ice and hunt seals - for decades, the Inuit hardly ever encountered polar bears. But these days they've become dangerous nuisance in villages. Scientists predict that two-thirds of the polar bears will be gone by 2050 due to rapidly melting sea ice. Concerned about their plight, conservation groups have taken them on as cause. Coca-Cola has made the polar bear a mascot as friendly-looking as Winnie-The-Pooh.

Polar Bear

Polar Bear
by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1920)
(via Wikicommons, Public Domain).

In March, polar bear trade will be a subject of the 40th anniversary Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Scientists in the U.S., Russia and other countries argue the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) should be up-listed as "threatened to extinction", which would impose greater restrictions on trade. But the proposal has its opponents. Once the inconspicuous lone hunter roaming vast stretches of the deserted Arctic, the polar bear is now swept up in world politics.

In our last two posts, we compared the Inuit nations' acceptance of climate change to the attitude of North Carolinians in the United States. The state's leaders dogmatically deny science, then depend on federal and state money and technology to help them recover quickly after frequent hurricanes. The Inuit, on the other hand, can't order-up big Arctic snow-makers and magical Zambonis to build-up and resurface collapsing tundra. They've long been adapting to environmental changes, from DDT in their food sources to the effects of climate change that cause ice and fish and elk and berries to disappear before their eyes. Unlike U.S. politicians, the Inuit joined scientists in force last year to urge stricter carbon emission regimes at the Doha talks.

The Inuit refer to anyone south of the Arctic as a Southerner, as in: "Southerners tell us our food has mercury, slow down eating it... If our food is contaminated we will be affected, but we have little choice." To them, North Carolinians are southerners, most scientists are southerners, and in fact we're all southerners. Imploring us to change our carbon emitting ways, they'll say: "We cannot exist purely by making money, if we do not have our environment we do not survive..."

Southerners' Impositions

But it's not as it appears, a fairy tale about the wisdom of the doomed natives versus the cavalier ignorance of southerners, strip-mall blazing our carbon emitting ways across earth. As we pointed out about the Tuvulans in a climate change story years ago, it's never so simple. It's true, North Carolinans ask Congress to roll back the law that says buildings erected on beaches can't be covered by federal insurance; and it's true that the Inuit sometimes agree with scientists. But ask the Inuit about the polar bears.

Actually you don't have to, the Inuit will tell you. For background, in 2008 The US Fish and Wildlife Service put the polar bear on the Endangered Species list as a "threatened species" based on studies of polar bear population counts and rapidly melting Arctic ice. But the Inuit consider themselves custodians of the polar bears. Part of their heritage, the bears also feature in lucrative hunting businesses. The Inuit reject scientists' predictions of the polar demise. "Southerners often have a narrow perspective, based only on studies..", one man said. Others say the polar bears are endangered by the scientists themselves:

  • "It's Southerners, meddling with caribou, polar bears and whales that endangers animals. This handling and tagging is what harms animals. Wildlife biologist are the ones endangering wildlife."
  • "The bears are entering our communities because they can't hear. Helicopters are damaging their hearing and now they hunt by smell alone. That draws them into our villages."
  • "Bears that are tampered with and handled or tagged will act aggressively, break into cabins and destroy snowmobiles."

Hungry Polar Bears

Males polar bears weigh 1,000 - 1,700 pounds (250-771 kg), so encounters in villages can be frightening. One man out on his snowmobile checking his fox traps one day, when, as it seemed: "a snowdrift alongside the trail reared up and became a large polar bear...". The bears will stalk children and kill sled dogs. Residents of Hall Beach, Nunavut, Canada grapple with this problem on a daily basis, as a local paper recently reported. The mayor explained that bears wander hungrily into towns when they smell walrus meat stored underground to age and ferment. After reading the article, citizens from other Inuit towns wrote in offering suggestions like building community storage lockers. One commented: "We are seeing bears everyday here also (Arviat). Lots of bear patrol and lots of rubber bullets. Put your meat caches away, pick up the seals from your yard. The bears will eventually move on."

Polar Bear Sign

Polar Bear Warning, Longyearbyen, Norway, via Wikicommons.

So while some Inuit blame the scientists for the disappearing bears, the presence of all the marauding bears has other Inuit doubting the scientists about polar bear population decreases.

In their insistence that polar bear populations are healthy, the Inuit are joined by people who don't accept the science on climate change. Denying the polar bear is in danger goes hand in hand with denying climate change, as in, the ice is not melting therefore the polar bears are not disappearing, or vice versa. Frequently, they'll say that populations have increased since the 1950's or 60's or 70's'. But scientists point out that polar bear counts back then were unreliable and that laws curtailing hunting helped sustain populations. In addition to making up their own polar bear counts based on mythical estimations of previous counts, they make up other "science" too. The say the polar bear will adapt, for instance, as if adapting was more like shedding a sweater than evolving over thousands of years.

It's fair to say that getting accurate counts of bears is challenging. The same features that allow bears to sneak up on seals and lunge at unsuspecting snowmobile riders also make them difficult to count by some methods. Last year the Nunavut government did an aerial survey that many claimed showed bear populations growing, and the Nunavut government also increased their hunting quotas. But they used different survey method from previous surveys, so no comparison could be made. Further adding to the complexity of it all there are 19 subpopulations of polar bears in five nations, not all equally imperiled.

Regardless, scientists don't disagree about the species' fate. Ice that's disappearing faster than scientists predicted means that climate change will catch up with today's already shrinking polar bear populations. Scientists estimate that there are about 20,000 bears left. Each year about 600 are hunted by the Inuit in addition to what's taken by poachers.

Polar Bear Economics

With predictions that two-thirds of the population will be gone by mid-century, prices for polar bear hides have skyrocketed. Of course, as demand increases and supply decreases, the Inuit see opportunity.

In their quest to deal with the polar bears on their own terms, the Inuit have found some odd bedfellows, as people usually do in these situations. For example in Alaska U.S., when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 187,000 square miles of land as protected critical habitat for polar bears, Alaska's native groups (not Inuit) joined oil and gas interests and the State of Alaska and successfully sued to stop the plan.

As for the Inuit, to protect their hunting interests, they vehemently oppose up-listing the bear in the CITES regime, contrary to what his recommended by the U.S., Russia, and other countries. They say: "the Inuit have been directly witnessing the effects of climate change in the Arctic...and are observing more Polar Bears than ever before..." Scientists dire predictions about polar bears, they say, are "claims not based on reality and fact but on misinformation and fear mongering." Joining them, the World Wildlife Fund doesn't support the CITES ban, calling it a distraction from the main goal of mitigating climate change.

In addition to protecting their hunting businesses their also trying to keep hungry bears out of their villages, with the help of some big companies. The town of Arviat, Nunavat (pop. 2,800) has built a fairly elaborate system for bear control. Electric fences help keep bears out of places like dumps and chained sled dog areas. The town pays someone to ride around the perimeter from October to December on an ATV from 12AM to 8AM every day to chase away polar bears. The program is a World Wildlife Fund initiative funded by Coca-Cola. The company has put millions of dollars into various polar bear conservation initiatives. So when it comes to climate science and economic self-interest, do the northerners and southerners have more in common then they would think?

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