So bear populations are either increasing or declining. Hunting is either an ecological outrage or a perfectly sustainable aboriginal right. On balance, the majority of polar bear scientists agree that even if the current state of things looks shakily stable, the future for bears is poor. Nonetheless, as long as climate change is political, polar bears will be too. And the tone of the discussion can get downright ugly.
The tourists come, of course, because polar bears are a dying breed, and they want to check that furry face off their life lists before it’s too late. The environmental movement has never had a higher-profile spokesmodel than Ursus maritimus. Every discussion about global warming has to include a mention of polar bears; every article about the human disregard for nature has to feature a photograph of a sad-looking bear on a tiny speck of ice.
Granted, the population numbers have been startling. Research from 1984 to 2004 showed that the western Hudson Bay population, which includes the Churchill bears, had declined from 1,194 to 935. The trendlines from that study suggested that by 2011, the population would fall to as low as 676.
Fast-forward to today and a new study, which reveals that the current polar bear population of western Hudson Bay is 1,013 animals.
Wait … what? More bears than there were 10 years ago? Nearly double the prediction? “Polar bears are one of the biggest conservation success stories in the world,” says Drikus Gissing, wildlife director for the Government of Nunavut. “There are more bears here now than there were in the recent past.”
“That’s false,” says Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity, the international advocacy organization that, in 2008, successfully pushed to have polar bears listed as “threatened” in the United States. “Polar bear populations are in decline. That means individual bears are starving and drowning.”
Take the population in the greater Churchill area, for example, which was analyzed in a 2012 paper entitled Western Hudson Bay Polar Bear Aerial Survey. While the Government of Nunavut, which commissioned the study, was quick to trumpet an increase in polar bear numbers — and call for higher hunting quotas — the University of Minnesota scientists who actually did the work were more judicious. The sea ice in Hudson Bay is now breaking up two to three weeks earlier than it did three decades ago. And since a bear on land is easier to spot from a helicopter than a bear on the ice, catastrophically early ice breakup may have just made the bears more visible. By that logic, a higher count could actually be evidence that the bears are doing worse.
A follow up to 2017
In Canada, hunting rules are determined by individual provinces and territories, so a particularly peripatetic bear in Hudson Bay could wind up being “managed” by Manitoba, Nunavut, Ontario, Quebec and possibly even Newfoundland. Factor in the disparate laws in the other four polar bear nations — the United States, Russia, Greenland and Norway — and you’ve got a recipe for worldwide confusion.
Approximately two-thirds of the world’s polar bears live in Canada, and about 600 are legally hunted here every year. Of that, 86 percent of the hunting occurs in Nunavut. For years, First Nations and Inuit residents of polar bear country have reported increased interaction with bears. More bears are coming into settlements, scavenging garbage, hassling dogs and terrifying residents. But some scientists counter that if bears were doing well, they wouldn’t come around town and, therefore, a greater number of bear encounters is actually evidence of fewer bears.