Polar Bear Invasion: Twice As Many As Estimated

  • Date: 28/01/13
  • Jake MacDonald, up here

In villages across the Arctic, Inuit are reporting an invasion. Polar bears, once rare, are now strolling the streets, peeking in windows, killing dogs – even stalking kids. No place has been more menaced than Arviat. In 2012, the Nunavut government conducted a long-awaited census of western Hudson Bay polar bears and came up with 1,013 animals, or about twice as many as the number projected by environment Canada.

When Darryl Baker was growing up in Arviat, he didn’t know much about polar bears. “You could go all summer up and down the Hudson Bay coast in a boat and never see one. When the elders camped out, they would tie out a dog to warn them if a bear was coming. But us young guys didn’t bother with that, because we never saw bears.”

He recalls that he didn’t know much about anything else, either. His father was a white man who took off and left him to be raised by his Inuit mother and various Inuit uncles and grandfathers. “I wanted to be a hunter and trapper like them, but I was very stupid and I nearly died, many times. I would swamp the boat at sea, or get whited out, or get lost on the tundra. I bought a GPS, thinking I could go anywhere now. But the elders just smiled. ‘Will that little thing teach you where the thin ice is?’”

The first time Darryl Baker saw a polar bear, he was on his snowmachine, checking his fox traps. A snowdrift alongside the trail reared up and became a large polar bear. “I took off out of there,” he said. “But it was very scary because my snowmachine wasn’t running good and I was afraid I was going to have to walk back to town with that polar bear on my trail.”

He wanted to emulate his Inuit mentors, so he got himself some sled dogs. But he says polar bears are a constant problem for dog mushers. “There’s lots of polar bears now. They come right into town, and they hate dogs. A couple of years ago my neighbour phoned me one morning and said, ‘there’s a big polar bear coming down the street and he looks like he’s in a bad mood.’ The bear was heading right for my dogs. I opened the kitchen window and fired a shot to scare it off but it ignored me and killed one of my dogs with one slap. So I shot the bear.”

The CBC interviewed him, and qallunaat – white people – criticized him on the web site. “People were saying a polar bear is more valuable than a sled dog. Well, I work hard and I spend a lot of money on my dogs. A good dog is worth from two thousand to five thousand dollars. They said you should put your dogs in a ‘safe location.’ We don’t have safe locations. The bears walk right into the hamlet. Am I supposed to just stand there and watch when a bear starts killing my dogs?”

Conflicts with polar bears are becoming a problem across Nunavut, and Arviat is one of the hotspots. Arviat (which translates as “place of the bowhead whale”) is the southernmost community in mainland Nunavut, and one of the most traditional. Its population is about 90 per cent Inuit, and Inuktitut is the primary language. Groceries are expensive and “country food,” like caribou and fish, is the main source of protein. Many Inuit hunters and trappers are strengthening their cultural heritage by keeping dog teams, but in Arviat and other communities across the Arctic, bears make it difficult to be a dog owner. “And it’s not just dogs you have to worry about,” says Kukik Baker, Darryl’s wife. “Kids are in danger too. We’re afraid to let them walk home from school, or even play outside.”

Bear season along the coast of Hudson Bay normally stretches from late summer until freeze-up in November, when polar bears head out onto the ice to hunt seals. But in Arviat and other coastal communities, those seasonal patterns no longer dictate when a bear might show up in the yard. One day last March, Kukik and her 10-year-old daughter Natalie went to visit Kukik’s father, who lives just down the street. Natalie went outside and played on a snowbank with a friend. Shortly afterwards Darryl got a frantic phone call from a neighbour, who had spotted a polar bear stalking the kids. “It was creeping up on them like a cat sneaking up on some birds,” he says. “The kids screamed and ran into the house. I rushed over there. My father-in-law had already shot the bear, but it was wounded, so I shot it again and finished it off.”

Polar bears have gone after other people in Arviat, and numerous dogs have been killed. Local artist Mary Tutsuituk says she lives in fear from the end of August until the end of November. “I don’t know what to do,” she says. “A few days ago, a bear was slamming his paws on the wall of my house and looking in my daughter’s bedroom window! We just have a little house and it would be easy to break the door. What would he do if he came in? I’m exhausted all the time because I’m too afraid to sleep.”

* * *

After years of debate about climate change, just about everyone accepts that the “theory” of global warming is now a fact – Arctic winters are becoming shorter, and on average, freeze-up occurs weeks later than it did only four of five decades ago. satellite images show that Arctic summer sea ice has diminished by roughly 30 per cent since 1979. It’s also a well-accepted fact that polar bears are heavily dependent on seals for their diet, and many bear scientists argue that shorter winters are stressing polar bears by reducing their prime food-gathering season. Some scientists argue that bears in the western Hudson bay population (the southernmost of the world’s 19 populations of polar bears) face the most immediate threat. In 2004, Environment Canada researchers predicted that by 2011, that population would decline to about 610 animals. Prominent polar bear scientist Dr. Andy Derocher, of the University of Alberta, believes that population is “teetering on collapse,” and other scientists have predicted that polar bears across the Arctic could be extinct by the end of the century.

Scientists are well aware that these predictions fly in the face of Inuit assertions that bears are, if anything, getting more numerous. In private, many scientists dismiss those views as folklore, and some environmentalists suspect the motives of the Inuit because they can sell bear hunts to wealthy foreign hunters for up to $40,000 apiece. (The community of Arviat has voted to keep its annual quota of nine bears for local Inuit hunters.) Some bear scientists also suggest that the “perceived increase” of polar bears is actually caused by stressed, hungry bears wandering into communities. As Professor Derocher puts it, “some of these bears we think have been pushed off the ice early, away from their primary prey, so they get desperate.” Inuit hunter Darryl Baker scoffs at this contention. “Most of the bears coming into Arviat are fat and healthy. I skinned the bear that stalked my daughter last spring, and it had lots of fat on it.”

In 2012, the Nunavut government conducted a long-awaited census of western Hudson Bay polar bears and came up with 1,013 animals, or about twice as many as the number projected by environment Canada. Dr. Mitch Taylor, a lifelong polar bear scientist who, at times, has been ostracized by his peers for insisting that polar bear populations are generally stable, took some satisfaction from the results. “The Inuit were right. There aren’t just a few more bears. There are a hell of a lot more bears.”

The study, however, was cold comfort to the people of Arviat. Scientists might continue to squabble about survey results, but the Arviarmiut are certain they’re having far more bear encounters than ever before, and no one seems to know what to do about it.

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