A 2021 publication by the government of Canada released last month called Species at Risk in Nunavut says the region is “now observing higher numbers of polar bears“, and that management goals are “more focused on maintaining or reducing numbers in communities and in sensitive areas (i.e. bird colonies)“. Local Inuit are said to be “concerned about the increasing number of encounters and property damages” caused by polar bears.
Polar bear in Arviat, Nunavut, 3 October 2022. Chris Mikijuniak photo.
Polar bears in Canada are considered a species of ‘special concern’ (COSEWIC 2018), not threatened as they are in the USA. See the map of Nunavut below.
Polar bear specialists insist that more encounters with bears in recent years are due to a decline in sea-ice duration and extent compared to the 1980s plus more attractants like garbage dumps near Arctic communities (e.g. Smith et al. 2022; Wilder et al. 2017).
They steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that an increased number of bears compared to the 1970s is also a factor in many regions, as bear numbers continue to rebound from the effects of overhunting (Crockford 2019, 2020).
In addition, no mention is ever made of the fact that more adult males in many populations–a direct result of hunting restrictions or outright bans–puts competitive stress on young bears who may then cause a wide variety of problems out of desperation. Problems include many near-miss encounters, fatal and non-fatal attacks, and extensive property damage (including ruined snow machines, see below).
Back in the 1980s, seeing more polar bears meant there were actually more bears around. But now, scientists insist that seeing more bears means there are fewer bears because of less sea ice–and that these bears are attracted to human habitations because they are desperate for food (i.e., more conflicts due to a “shortage of ice”).
The logic of this is often hard to fathom, especially when many serious problems with bears occur when sea ice is abundant, including the 2018 fatal attack in Foxe Basin that required an ice breaker to rescue the survivors (Crockford 2019).
Here’s a quote from a Labrador polar bear safety guide from 2019 that simply makes sense:
The more people you have out on the land and the more bears you have, the higher potential you have for a bear-human encounter.”
It seems to me that Inuit in Nunavut are quite right to be concerned about rising polar bear numbers, regardless of what’s happening with sea ice.
The report says (pg. 23):
The first harvest restrictions were imposed in the 1960s. Since then, the Polar Bear has been an iconic species at risk on a national and international scale, creating additional pressure to conserve the species. However, science and Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ ) are now observing higher numbers of Polar Bears, and the management goals are more focused on maintaining or reducing numbers in communities and in sensitive areas (i.e. bird colonies). Inuit are concerned about the increasing number of encounters and property damages by Polar Bears; this may be due to a combination of factors, including rising population numbers in some areas and a reduction in sea-ice duration and extent.
COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada). 2018. COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Polar Bear Ursus maritimus in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa. PDF here. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/species-risk-public-registry/cosewic-assessments-status-reports/polar-bear-2018.html
Crockford, S.J. 2020. State of the Polar Bear Report 2019. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 39, London. PDF here.
Environment and Climate Change Canada 2021. Species at Risk in Nunavut 2021. Iqualuit, NU. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/species-risk-education-centre/species-risk-nunavut-2021
Smith, T.S., Derocher, A.E., Mazur, R.L., et al. 2022. Anthropogenic food: an emerging threat to polar bears. Oryx, in press. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0030605322000278
Wilder, J.M., Vongraven, D., Atwood, T., et al. 2017. Polar bear attacks on humans: implications of a changing climate. Wildlife Society Bulletin 41(3):537-547. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wsb.783/full