Science and traditional Inuit knowledge are at loggerheads once again following the release of a draft management plan for polar bears by the Government of Nunavut (GN) during public consultations in Iqaluit earlier this month.
The plan, four years in the making, calls for Inuit knowledge to play a far more important role in bear management, claiming the bears are adapting to climate change and their increasing numbers are putting the public at risk.
Two deaths in the Kivalliq earlier this year – Aaron Gibbons of Arviat and Darryl Kaunak of Naujaat – were the first polar bear attack deaths in Nunavut in 18 years.
In addition to differing opinions on the bear’s adaptability to climate change, Inuit claim bear numbers are rising in almost every population (nine of 13), while science claims only one population has seen an increase in its number.
Gabriel Nirlungayuk of Rankin Inlet is a former director of wildlife for Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and has extensive experience with the memorandum of understanding that predated the draft plan.
Nirlungayuk took part in a number of community consultations across Nunavut concerning the GN’s polar bear quota-management plan at the time, and he said most Inuit had no problem with overall hunting quotas on the bears but they weren’t too pleased over sex selectivity that sees two-out-of-every-three-bears harvested having to be male.
He said that was a sticking point for everyone because communities were punished for harvesting too many female bears.
“For every female bear it goes over – I believe it was 1.5 for every one bear over – a community is penalized and its quota cut for the following year,” said Nirlungayuk.
“Nunavut is the only jurisdiction that practiced that. Our friends over in the NWT, for example, don’t have sex selectivity.
“The communities also wanted opportunity to sell their hides, so one of the motivations was to show the world we have this polar bear management plan and it’s working great.
“Because of the cycle involved in the surveys the government does on the bears – it’s very expensive to conduct them – it lags behind sometimes 10-to-20 years and Inuit were telling us in pretty much every community that they were seeing a lot more bears.”
Nirlungayuk said people were outraged following the two Kivalliq deaths this past summer and began wondering to what extent do we go to protect the polar bear.
He said people have a right to defend themselves and their property, but at the same time, if it’s a female bear in question, they’re going to be penalized and that creates a double-jeopardy situation.
“Western science suggests that there are 13 set populations. People need to understand that due to female collaring they come up with these boundaries but Inuit know all polar bears don’t have boundaries.
“Wherever it’s bountiful for them, that’s where they’re going to hang out and, if they’re going to travel, they might travel far.
“There was one male that was tagged in Russia and ended up on Baffin Island, so they may have a pretty good idea about female boundaries because of the collaring, but they have no good scientific data on big males.
“Inuit say they are seeing a lot more bears now and I agree with what they’re saying – and not just coming into towns, but anywhere they roam because of years of having this polar bear management system, sex selectivity, don’t hunt family groups, don’t disturb denning bears and things of that nature.
“Those types of practices have worked quite well, so what are we aiming for is the big question to a lot of people right now.”
Nirlungayuk said polar bears have been around for about 600,000 years and their climate has changed a lot during that time.
He said to date, Inuit haven’t seen any negative effects to polar bears due to climate change.
“Tourism, perhaps, is another matter. When I went on the Churchill buggy we saw a big male about one-half-mile away and the buggy went straight to it.
“He was lying down and stayed lying down as we drove up to it, so he knew no one was hunting him, but if that were up in the high Arctic the bear would take off as soon as it saw a human.
“So, I think there might be some truth to – because of the tourism in Churchill – a growing number of bears here are equating communities to food and they know they’re not going to get shot.
“Polar bears are not stupid. That’s for sure.”
Scientific predictions are off the mark
Nirlungayuk said the predictions made by Western science for the polar bear populations in western Hudson Bay and Baffin Bay were, in a word, wrong.
He said they need to look closely at those predictions and determine how they got them wrong.
“From a scientific perspective, I would challenge the scientific community to take another look at both western Hudson Bay and Baffin Bay to explain why the predictions that were being made back in the early 2000s up to 2018 were so wrong.
“A statement that came from Environment Canada was that the bears will keep on declining because of climate change even without hunting and that hasn’t happened.
“And, when it comes to scientists making blanket statements about Inuit being wrong about this and wrong about that – excuse me but we’re (Inuit) up here because of our adaptability and we’ll continue to adapt to whatever comes toward us except for, maybe, a meteorite coming in or something like that.
“To me, that’s no more than racist comments being made by some people.”