These are the best of times for polar bears
If you’re a polar bear, especially a Canadian polar bear, you are living in the best of places and in the best of times. Your ancestors suffered through prolonged periods of wanton hunting that in places decimated their numbers around the turn of the last century, and after the Second World War. Your grandparents and great grandparents suffered through the overly cold, overly icy spells that hit parts of the Arctic in the 1970s and 1980s. Over the last few decades, as the Arctic basked in warm weather, you’ve seen various polar bear communities fluctuate wildly in size, but on the whole they’ve flourished: Where once the global population hovered at levels so precariously low that some predicted extinction, it now boasts a robust 20,000 to 25,000.
If you’re a mama bear who likes to raise her cubs on land or on the ice abutting the shore — that’s what you do this time of year — you know that your enemy is too much cold, not too little.
To feed yourself and your cubs during this arduous denning season, you cleverly catch seals as they pop up through the breathing holes for air — could Nature have made any arrangement more elegant for your survival? But when it’s too cold and the ice becomes too thick, those breathing holes close up and the seals — your main source of food — head out to sea, beyond your reach. You will not only lose your litter to starvation but you, yourself, will become so emaciated that it may take a year or two before you can put on enough weight to be able to again give birth.
If you’re a human, there’s nothing that you can do to keep the weather from becoming so cold, and the ice so thick, that they endanger polar bears. But you can do your best to protect the polar bears over which you have stewardship. Canada, home to two-thirds of the world’s polar bears, has done an especially good job at protecting its own.
In part, Canadian authorities, informed by scientific data along with Inuit wisdom and their on-the-ground reports of polar bear activity, have become good regulators. When polar bears in one region or another become much more abundant than needed to meet the Inuit’s need for meat and fur, quotas increase to allow for sport hunting and exports; when polar bear numbers decline, so does the quota. In 2007 in the West Hudson Bay area, for example, the Government of Nunavut curbed the quota of polar bears that could be killed — whether for food, sport, or in self-defence — from 56 to 38, and then to just eight in 2008. In 2011, with the polar bears in healthy numbers, the quota was increased from eight to 21.
Some environmentalists have decried this increase in quotas. This week in Bangkok at the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species, they argued along with the U.S. and Russia that polar bears should be declared an endangered species, thus banning polar bear pelts from international trade. The environmentalists have it backwards — the quotas, especially when they rise in value, act to protect polar bears, not to threaten them. Unlike Russia, where hunting was banned for more than 50 years and where poaching has been rampant, poaching is unknown in Canada precisely because of the quota system. The quotas, which are set at 3.5% of the Canadian polar bear population, have created life-saving property rights in bears.
Those rights all vest in aboriginals, who are the sole recipients of quotas, who know their value, and who are free to trade in them. When quota is sold to sports hunters, it’s worth as much as $20,000 per bear as well as providing work for Inuit as guides. Pelts alone can fetch $10,000 to $12,000 when bear products are exported on the free market, as occurs with 2% of Canada’s bears, or about 300, each year.
Because a poached bear would be income lost to the Inuit, they act as eyes and ears on the tundra, guaranteeing that poaching doesn’t occur. The value of the quotas helps ensure that polar bears aren’t killed frivolously — the Inuit know that if polar bear numbers aren’t maintained, the quotas, and future revenues, will decrease. Without the quota system, the tundra would be a commons to be exploited by one and all — as Russia’s experience proves all too tragically. Rather than oppose Canada’s free market approach, Russians would be well advised to consider its benefits — they actually did take a step in that direction two years ago, by permitting their indigenous people the right to hunt 29 polar bears.
Polar bears won at Bangkok — the proposal to ban Canadian exports was defeated — but then polar bears have a long history of surviving, despite all that man and the elements have thrown at them. Polar bears are at least 100,000 years old — some claim they may even be millions of years old — and have lived on ice and on land, through far colder and far warmer climes than today.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe. LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com
To learn more about polar bears, see PolarBearScience.com, a refreshingly accessible and eye-opening website run by the University of Victoria’s Dr. Susan J. Crockford, a zoologist, evolutionary biologist and archaeozoologist with a passion for polar bears and little patience for scientists who mislead the public.
For an excellent summary of the issues surrounding Canada’s trade in polar bears, click here
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