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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Saint Ursus Maritimus

July 30, 2008

Icons are about simplicity and clarity. No gray areas. But what happens when the real polar bear clashes with the symbol it has become?

By Jim Robbins

Hunting nanuq on the blizzard-prone, wind-whipped ice off the coast of Nunavut in Canada’s far north is not for the faint-hearted. Polar bear hunters travel with an Inuit guide and must use traditional technology to find the bear and ensure a fair chase, which means a team of dogs and a sled and crossing the ice for up to ten days in temperatures that can reach -30 degrees Celsius.

Another guide, often a nephew or a son, travels ahead and prepares the evening’s lodging—a tent or a snow house. He might serve char, seal, pork chops, or, once in a great while, narwhal skin, a delicacy that tastes like a cross between almond and coconut.

Once a hunter sees a bear he wants to take, sled dogs are released. Polar bears will often stand and watch hunters, but the bellowing of attacking dogs sends them running across the ice, and the sled follows. “It’s the most physically demanding hunt in the world,” says George Wenzel, an anthropologist and geographer at McGill University in Montreal who has studied and lived with the Inuit for 40 years and been on more than 100 polar bear hunts. “You have to bounce along in pursuit of the bear. The sled is not particularly comfortable and the cold just takes it out of you.”

For this, as well as the processing of the hide, the wealthy hunters (most of them American) will pay US$30,000. Two-thirds of that goes to the Inuit guide, his family, and the most needy in the community. The hunts are one of the primary sources of income for 15 of the 26 Inuit villages in Nunavut, a territory that covers a huge swath of the Canadian Arctic. There are just 30,000 people across the territory. But they’re not the only ones relying on nanuq.

As the fallout from climate change grows more serious, the clamor for action grows more insistent. To press their case in the court of public opinion, conservationists and biologists have harnessed Ursus maritimus as a potent symbol: the white and fuzzy polar bear, ferocious apex predator, and most famous icon of the Arctic.

Polar bears are the most prominent and charismatic victims of climate change. They are portrayed as being on a rush toward extinction, with the ice from which they hunt seals melting beneath their feet and their Arctic homeland on the verge of vanishing. Photos of the bear are routinely used by news media whenever a story about climate change airs.

This January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will recommend whether to designate the two populations of bears in Alaska a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. There’s a lot riding on that decision. The bear is a keystone species; if protected, the arctic ecosystem would be protected. But there’s much more going on here.

It would be the first time a species has been listed as threatened by the impacts of climate change. Many of our hopes and fears about a warming Earth, it seems, are projected onto the great white bear. And that’s where the story gets complicated. What happens when the real bear clashes with the symbol it has become?

Habitat Lost

For Dr. Andrew E. Derocher, a professor of biology at the University of Alberta in Canada and current chairman of the World Conservation Union’s Polar Bear Specialist Group, the decision to list the polar bear is simple. “We can see habitat loss at play,” he says, “and it’s a habitat loss issue at its essence.”

Polar bears are migratory hunters, following the biologically rich edge of the ice as it forms each fall, subsisting there primarily on ring seals and retreating with the ice as it recedes to shore. The most critical time for the bears is spring and early summer, when seal pups, 50 percent of whose weight is fat, are born and are abundant. The young seals are easy to catch, and the bears can build fat stores without spending much energy.

The bears’ ice-edge habitat is taking a serious hit, though. As the climate changes, ice formations also go through dramatic change. In some places, the ice is melting three weeks earlier than it did 30 years ago. This means the bears have to leave the ice before the seal pups are born and thus miss out on nutritionally critical food. Once the coastal ice melts and they move inland, they fast in a physiological state similar to hibernation. The earlier the ice melts, the longer they must fast and the more fat reserves they use.

“The rate of change is pretty dramatic out there,” says Derocher. “This year was a statistical outlier. The sea-ice retraction in the Beaufort Sea was beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.”

“In the two best-studied populations, there’s good evidence” for listing, says Elizabeth Peacock, a biologist with the Nunavut government. A recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey found that, as sea ice retracts, polar bear body condition worsens. (1) Based on predictive models, scientists estimate that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could disappear by mid-century. (2, 3)

It is not simple, though, to see what would come from listing the bear as threatened. It might prevent some oil and gas development and alter some shipping routes to protect habitat. Federal agencies would need to ensure that any action taken would not adversely affect bears or their habitat. Yet the real hope—and it is more hope than anything else, Derocher admits—is that the idea of emaciated and dying bears would spur action on the big problem: the buildup of greenhouse gases. But how, asked one biologist rhetorically, do you write fossil fuel legislation into the recovery plan?

Rush to Judgment

“Polar bears have been captured by the image makers,” said ecologist Lee Foote, who has studied the bears and, is, like Derocher, at the University of Alberta. “It’s a misuse of the polar bear image. I think it’s counterproductive.”

He and polar bear biologist Mitchell Taylor are two of the naysayers who believe that listing the bear will create more problems than it solves. Taylor, who has studied the bears since 1978, is manager of wildlife resources for the territorial government of Nunavut. He sees the listing as a rush to judgment, 10 or 15 years ahead of the data.

First, he says, the population of polar bears is at an all-time high. In the 1960s, there were approximately 6,000 bears; now, there are around 25,000. In Nunavut’s Davis Strait, there are more than 2,000 bears—up from 850 in the 1980s.

There are so many polar bears in some Inuit communities these days that people are often on edge, and they fear for their lives. “A lot of people grew up picking berries or gathering goose eggs,” said Foote. “Now polar bears are so prevalent that everyone tries to carry a gun.”

Reports of more bears in populated areas, however, may be due to the fact that more bears are spending time on land due to a lack of sea ice, according to biologists who support the listing. “There are bizarre sights of bears hundreds of kilometers inland,” said Derocher. “That’s a new movement pattern over the last ten years.” Ten years ago, two-thirds of Alaska’s bears denned on the sea ice and the rest on land. “That’s now reversed,” he said.

Conservation Hunting

Taylor, Foote, Wenzel, and others worry deeply about how listing the bear will impact traditional Inuit culture. They fear listing would set off a chain of unintended consequences that would not only deprive Inuit of critical income but also upset an important polar bear management regime in which the bear is protected for its commercial value to well-heeled hunters—something called “conservation hunting.”

The lives of the polar bear and the Inuit, a group of culturally similar natives in Canada and Greenland, are deeply intertwined. They hunt polar bears for food (the meat tastes something like ham) and fur, which is used for boots or other clothing or sold abroad.

The Inuit are very much opposed to the listing, as is the government of Nunavut. Designating the bear as a threatened species would prevent trophy hunters from importing their polar bear skins into the U.S. Polar bear hunts are a key part of the marginal Inuit economy of Nunavut. Given that 75 to 80 percent of the hunters are American, the listing would cause much of the market to dry up.

Moreover, if the U.S. lists the bear, other countries are expected to follow suit. This September, Britain’s environmental secretary, Hilary Benn, said he would ban the importation of polar bear skins and press other European countries to do the same.

Ironically, this debate comes at a time when several polar governments see hunting as an increasingly critical option for managing polar bears. Russia is implementing a new season on bears for native hunters. There seem to be so many bears, and so many have been poached, that a hunt gives native people an incentive for protecting them. And Greenland officials would like to follow the Canadian model and help the Inuit earn a better income by bringing sport hunters along on their traditional polar bear hunts. “In Greenland, traditional Inuit hunters [have] one of the lowest incomes in the country,” said Fernando Ugarte, a biologist with the Greenland government. “[Hunting is] a tradition, and the government wants to find a way to keep [it].”

Unintended Consequences

“The scarcest resource in the North is money,” says Wenzel, who has studied the economics of conservation hunting in Nunavut. Nearly US$3 million is spent on polar bear hunts each year, about half of which goes to the Inuit.

Inuit hunting is done for the community. Hunters return with their carcass to the village, where the meat is apportioned on the basis of need, with the elderly and sick getting served first. “Without the polar bear hunts there would be less food around,” said Wenzel.

In the 1950s, the government of Canada consolidated the Inuit, turning hundreds of widely scattered settlements into 24 villages to make it easier to deliver health care. However, the move also increased the distance the Inuit had to travel to find good hunting. That meant they started to rely on snowmobiles to travel 50 or 100 or more kilometers or more, to where they could take seals, walrus and narwhals. Driving snowmobiles means fuel and maintenance costs, which can double the price of a US$10,000 snow machine over three years.

The cost of getting to hunting areas, says Wenzel, is borne largely by the income from polar hunts. Ten to twelve hours of hunting costs only US$35 and “brings in 25 kilos of edible biomass, from one seal,” he says. To buy that much meat in the store would cost about US$250. Furthermore, says Wenzel, when people purchase food in the store, they invest in high-energy, low-quality foods. “With hunting, you get high-quality food for a lot less money. Hunting is not an anachronism in the Arctic.”

But it is subject to international politics. For instance, the 1982 European ban on the import of seal skins fueled sport hunting for polar bears, which became a way for Inuit to replace lost sealskin income. Wenzel, Foote, and Taylor warn that a threatened listing in the U.S. would cause a decline in polar bear hunting and could have similar unintended consequences. For example, sport hunters, in a sense, Foote says, are unwittingly helping to boost the population of young polar bears by selecting out large males. Trophy hunters want a boar, the largest they can find. “Removing the largest bear may increase cub survival because polar bears are opportunistically cannibalistic,” Foote says, “and it’s almost always a large male taking cubs and sometimes killing sows.”

The Inuit quota will likely remain unchanged, and the Inuit usually shoot the first bear they see, whether it’s a female, a small boar, or even a subadult. “That’s going to have a very different impact on the population than an adult-boar harvest,” says Foote. “To take 500 males or 500 females is a very different thing.”

And then there’s the matter of cooperative management. In the vast, sparsely settled reaches of the Arctic, biologists are greatly underfunded. A combination of science and traditional knowledge has evolved to help researchers expand their reach and understanding. Listing the bear in spite of Inuit opposition might put the delicate relationship between biologists and natives at risk.

“The Inuit have been willing to go along with a lot of quota reductions,” Taylor says. “If they can’t have a sport hunt, what’s the message to those people? That we’ve been lying to them. A lot of the cooperation will vanish and people up here will do what they want.”

As with the ban on sealskins, the end of sport hunts may lead the Inuit, suddenly deprived of a prime source of cash, to turn their attention to other species. If the Inuit can’t earn money from polar bears, then they will likely resist limits on belugas, walruses, large whales, snow crab, and halibut. And should the polar bear no longer be important commercially, Inuit may start shooting them illegally, something they now try to avoid because of their value to sport hunters. Increased poaching also means less information for managers on what bears are being killed.

The idea of conservation hunting is not new. It’s a model being used for elk, wolves, elephants, and grizzlies. But trophy hunting for polar bears as a conservation strategy may be a bitter pill. The bear draws us in. Derocher quotes a friend as saying, “People are more moved by pollution in polar bear milk than in human breast milk.” No doubt, the bear has become a formidable conservation icon. But if history is any guide, icons are fragile and need to be handled with care.

Literature cited:

1. Rode, K.D., S.C. Amstrup, and E.V. Regehr. 2007. Polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea III: Stature, mass, and cub recruitment relationship to time and sea ice extent between1982 and 2006. U.S. Geological Survey Science Strategy to Support U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Polar Bear Listing Decision, U.S. Geological Survey.

2. Durner, G.M. et al. 2007. Predicting the future distribution of polar bear habitat in the polar basin from resource selection functions applied to 21st century general circulation model projections of sea ice. U.S. Geological Survey Science Strategy to Support U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Polar Bear Listing Decision, U.S. Geological Survey.

3. Hunter C.M. et al. 2007 Polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea II: Demography and population growth in relation to sea ice conditions. U.S. Geological Survey Science Strategy to Support U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Polar Bear Listing Decision, U.S. Geological Survey.

Polar bears are circumpolar marine mammals native to Alaska, northern Canada, Russia, Norway, and Greenland. Biologists divide them into 19 subpopulations, with two in Alaska. Their lipid-rich diet, an average of 45 ringed seals per bear per year, creates big animals—up to 500 kilograms. They share with Alaska’s Kodiak bear the title of world’s largest land carnivore. Their white fur is something of an illusion—the fur is actually hollow and translucent.

About the Author

Jim Robbins is a freelance writer based in Helena, Montana, where he writes for The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, and other publications.

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