Hunters win hike in polar bear quota
Species under threat as global warming shrinks habitat.
Canadian authorities have increased quotas for polar-bear hunts by almost 30% in the country's Nunavut region. But conservationists fear that the move is not backed by adequate scientific assessment.
In January, the total quota for hunters in Nunavut was raised from 403 bears to 518. Permission to kill more bears was granted following both requests from indigenous Inuit hunters, who said that they had observed more bears in the region this year, and advice from local wildlife organizations.
University of Oslo Zoological Museum
But scientists say that the decision violates the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears. This was signed by Canada, Denmark, Norway, the United States and the Soviet Union, as it then was, to protect polar-bear populations and their habitats from excessive hunting. The agreement aims to ensure sustainable, science-based management of the mammals, and requires consultation between signatory parties before quotas can be changed.
"The observed increase in local density alone does not justify a higher quota," says Øystein Wiig, a mammalogist at the University of Oslo's Zoological Museum, and an expert on polar bears with the World Conservation Union. "The amount of harvest could be much higher than the populations in the Baffin Bay can actually take."
Canadian officials dismiss this view. Mitch Taylor, the Nunavut government's chief polar-bear biologist, says that scientific studies were certainly considered before increasing the quota. And officials in Nunavut claim that traditional Inuit knowledge about population size deserves more trust than it has had in the past.
Of the Arctic region's estimated 25,000 polar bears, around half live in northern Canada. Worldwide, roughly 1,000 animals are killed each year by hunters. The species is not yet classified as endangered, but scientists are concerned that environmental changes may pose an increasing threat to the mammals.
Norwegian researchers revealed in 2003 that bears that roam large distances accumulate relatively high levels of industrial pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, in their bodies1.
Moreover, there is growing concern about habitat losses associated with global warming. The rise in the world's temperatures is particularly pronounced at high latitudes, and the resulting ice melt threatens to leave many bears homeless. To survive, animals are forced into smaller areas, and increasingly stay on land during summer. This is the most likely explanation for the observed concentration of bears in the Nunavut region, Wiig believes.
He adds that he is not challenging the Inuit's right to hunt polar bears. "There is nothing wrong with hunting as long as their harvest is sustainable," he says.
- Haave M., et al. Environment Health Perspectives, 111. 431 - 436 (2003).