When a grizzly bear passed right by her house on July 14, Helen Whittaker grabbed her digital camera to record the massive beast ambling by.
“It was walking towards town, through our backyard,” said her husband, Larry Whittaker.
Veteran conservation officer Allen Niptanatiak received a phone call shortly thereafter, around 1 p.m. He went into his office and picked up his shotgun and other bear deterrent. By the time Niptanatiak spotted the bear, it was heading toward the airport, outside the community.
“It was very large, possibly a male, just (judging by) its stature and its walking. It was not afraid, but with a large male like that they’re usually not afraid anyway,” he said.
Niptanatiak kept an eye on the grizzly for about half an hour, until it disappeared into the distance.
Although the bear didn’t return to the community, Niptanatiak heard that a young man on an all-terrain vehicle saw the animal that night about 5 km outside the community and he also took video of it.
The Whittakers have occupied their home for 35 years and they’ve never witnessed a grizzly come that close before, Larry said.
“That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Bears often come around at odd hours… it’s probably happened before,” he said.
The video was uploaded to the Internet and created quite a buzz in Kugluktuk. Whittaker doesn’t believe it was any reason to be alarmed.
“The bear was, more or less, minding its own business,” he said. “I don’t think he had any ill intent. He was just wandering around and happened to wander into town.”
“We’re used to the grizzlies around here because there’s quite a few of them,” he said, adding that reports of the bears have ranged from a couple per year to as many as eight annually.
If anyone spots a grizzly in or near town, Niptanatiak urges them to call the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the RCMP, bylaw or the hunters and trappers organization.
“If it’s not doing any damage or anything, just leave it, just observe it,” he said, adding that taking shelter inside a home is wise.
If the bear is obstructing a person’s path to shelter, it’s best to remain composed and speak to the animal in a calm voice, Niptanatiak advised.
“When it sees a quad or people, they usually turn around anyway and start going back the other way,” he said.
In his 19 years as a conservation officer, Niptanatiak can only recall one instance of a grizzly doing harm. It was a young, skinny male that came into Kugluktuk several years ago in December, when the species is normally hibernating. That bear killed a dog, so the decision was made to shoot it.
Any Inuk may legally shoot a grizzly, but exercising caution when an animal is amidst nearby homes is critical, Niptanatiak warned.
“No one should shoot it unless they’re personally in danger. We don’t want anybody discharging firearms in the community,” he said.
Normally, the bears are not aggressive, according to Niptanatiak, who has been a hunter and trapper for close to 50 years.
“To this day, I respect them so much… they’re amazing” he said. “We as Inuit have always been told that if you talk to animals, they’ll hear you. There’s that spiritual connect. I still use that, and it seems to work.”