I speak today as an individual on the faculty of the University of Alberta and as a scientist with a circumspect overview of renewable and sustainable resource use. I have paid my way here from my private funds with no other donations or source of support. I am a citizen of both the US and Canada.
Rationale for comments:
(1) It is a unique opportunity to broaden the discussion of appropriate resource use which is the core of my professional life activities.
(2) My southern country (USA) is poised to exert a pivotal influence on the livelihoods of Inuit citizens of my northern country (Canada) without full consideration of the implications. A “crack-the-whip effect” is developing whereby climate change may affect sea ice persistence which affects some polar bear habitats, which sparks endangered species policy which affects rural Inuit livelihood. There is approximately the same number of rural people as there are polar bears living in the polar bear’s range. I believe the culture and welfare of these Inuit, Inuvialuit, Greenlanders and Siberian subsistence users have received insufficient consideration in relation to polar bear management, particularly their role in resource management.
(3) I remain concerned about possible misuse of science and logic in arguments around the polar bear/climate change debate.
My history with sustainable use comes from participation, research and publication on community based natural resource management on three continents, and an advisory role in arctic research programs. From the 2007 IPCC projections I recognize and accept that climate has rapidly changed in the north. Finally, I am not a climatologist or a polar bear researcher and I have never sought or received grants or support for either of these topics.
Errors in the application of climate change information to polar bear management
Conservation connotes use of resources; otherwise, protection efforts are better classified as preservation . Sustainable use principles are an appropriate framework for considering extractive use (hunting) of polar bears in light of concerns over habitat-driven changes in their habitats. The conditions that permit the carefully managed conservation hunting of polar bears are highly relevant in demonstrating sustainability as discussion proceeds with the U S Fish and Wildlife Service’s comment period on re-classifying the polar bear as an endangered species . To add to this comment period it is important to consider error sources in the interpretation of risks to polar bears.
Polar bear data is at risk of being misused in the following six ways, thus representing a rationale for not listing polar bears as endangered until better and more objective policy consideration has been completed.
1. Errors of logic. Polar bears are being used as an icon of global climate change, yet populations of these bears are a response to, not a cause of climate change. Regardless of bear populations, climate will be unaffected by them, hence more protections for bears is illogical in remedying climate change. Simple association does not imply causation.
2. Errors of insufficient data. Polar bears are an extremely adaptable and persistent species that have occupied the arctic for at least the last 120,000 years . Their range constitutes a circumpolar belt that, if it follows many other species range shifts, will have moved northward and southward in response to previous episodes of ice ages and climate warming conditions . We need more information on the conditions leading to reductions in ice and in habitat quality at the southern fringes of polar bear range and whether a commensurate and offsetting improvement occurs at the northern fringe of the polar bear ranges. The hypothesis of shifting ranges needs extensive investigation by bear surveys in the poorly known northern ranges. For example, if healthy bears are found giving birth to triplets instead of twins in the north and skinny smaller bears are having singletons instead of twins in the south, evidence for population-wide compensation to climate may exist.
3. Errors of conflation. The listing of polar bears as endangered is likely premature because there is insufficient data on most northern ranges to identify whether conditions are improving in response to climate change even as the southern fringes appear to be degrading. The knowledge of Hudson Bay (HB) bears is the best available for any polar bear subpopulation in existence . The HB populations are the:
(a) most southerly,
(b) most accessible,
(c) most handled, for example, 174 bears were anesthetized and helicopter ferried out of Churchill in 2005 alone (Tyrell),
(d) most habituated to humans and human food as they spend months near thousands of people in Churchill, some of whom feed them.
Extrapolation from the HB sub population to all other more northerly polar bear populations is inappropriate, yet this leap of conflation is commonly taken by the media. Understanding of the 17 other global polar bear subpopulations north of HB are less robust (but see reference ), yet, many polar bear biologists on the agree that some subpopulations are increasing, some are stable, and some are believed to be decreasing.
4. Errors of bad faith. Charismatic species are useful for marketing perceptions of sports teams (Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions), retail products (Chevrolet Impala, polar bears for soft drinks) and causes (Free Willy, Born Free Foundation). Credibility is lost, however, when scientific knowledge is misused to achieve a political end such as unsubstantiated emotional appeals for polar bear survival when the ultimate goal is to influence US energy policy. As one of those petitioning for ESA listing of polar bears said: “[the December 2006, ESA listing decision] gives me hope that we can get the United States to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution before it is too late to save the Arctic” . The goal of reducing climate change is honorable, the highly selective use of polar bear information for this is less so.
5. Confusion of proximate and ultimate causes: The ultimate cause of polar bear population reductions (absolute decreases over decadal time frames) is habitat reduction, particularly less sea ice. In the absence of immediate proximate factors, the long-term population levels of polar bears will be determined by ultimate factors. Proximate factors may include reduced fecundity, cub abandonment, cannibalism, starvation, hunter harvests and increased energy demands from changing conditions. These sources of mortality are appropriate in that they reflect a form of population regulation to more closely match bear numbers with the ranges’ ability to support them.
6. Lack of specificity: The blanket listing of polar bears is a blunt and non-specific regulation that does not accurately target the threatened subpopulations of polar bears. The Endangered Species Act as applied to Grizzly Bears occurring on US lands shows the flexibility to list the grizzlies in the coterminous states as endangered, yet those in Alaska as abundant enough for sustainable harvests and export. Even if this same mechanism were applied to polar bears, it redundantly mimics the Marine Mammals Protection Act that already provides protection for those specific populations most at risk and acknowledges the increases/stability where they are known for subpopulations.
Polar bear watching
Bears are powerful and potentially dangerous predators, so polar bear watching is rarely promoted as a tourist activity given the lack of amenities available in the polar bears’ territories. The principal place where polar bear watching has been developed (Churchill, Manitoba, the self-styled ‘Polar bear capital of the World’) is accessible by rail and air and hosts 6-8,000 tourists each fall to watch the bears from the safety of sturdy ‘Tundra Buggies’ made from modified buses. Most bear observations are from 0-30 meters and bears are approached approximately every 10 minutes during the day.
Tourist amenities are well-developed because Churchill hosts not only polar bear watchers, but visitors at other times of year who variously watch whales, arctic/subarctic birds, and the Aurora Borealis, and who attend courses at the Churchill Northern Studies Center, or to fish, hunt, or engage in ecotourism expeditions.
In North Alaska a small number of tourists visit Barrow and Kaktovik where they observe whaling activities and view polar bears attracted to the whale carcasses.
Churchill, Manitoba is unique in having good access, good concentrations of bears and tourist infrastructure. It is a highly valued experience available for $3-6000. This form of tourism is not widespread. For example, seeing a solitary bear in a remote arctic village (necessarily at a distance, for safety reasons) is less attractive than the opportunity available at Churchill, every day of the visit, to photograph dozens of bears at very close range. There have been problems with bear watching too. Tour operators are purported to attract bears with blocks of lard, by rubbing fish oils on the wheels of their tour buggies, and by hauling whale carcasses as attractants to nearby beaches to ensure client viewing opportunities. Habituated bears sometimes become nuisance bears, necessitating an identifying paint mark on their hide, sometimes temporary restraint in Churchill’s “bear jail” holding facility and occasionally helicopter translocation of bears to remote areas. In 2004 there were 174 bears helicopter-transported out of Churchill. The remote northern town of Arviat, 150 miles up the coast from Churchill was simultaneously beleaguered with nuisance polar bears, many of which carried an identifying paint mark on them . In earlier times, polar bear hunting was a crucial management tool in remote villages and possibly structured the bear-human relationship in ways that no longer occur.
Polar bear hunting
In contrast to the bear-watching industry, polar bear hunters need almost no amenities beyond those available to local people. Visiting hunters spend very little time in the communities, yet contribute a significant source of revenue. A recent study of polar bear conservation hunting determined that the nine Inuit communities in Nunavut Territory who hosted visiting polar bear hunters received about $650,000 for allocating 15% of their subsistence quota to visiting hunters . These revenues were paid out as wages (a guide may earn more than $7000 for accompanying a hunter on a two-week hunt and may work three hunts per season), to the outfitter for making all arrangements, and to various community members for making suitable clothing, preparing the trophies for shipment, and for local purchases.
For the local residents, polar bear hunting is culturally, socially, economically, and nutritionally important, and for those engaged in outfitting and guiding visiting hunters, that seasonal occupation provides meaningful employment at a time of year when other jobs are scarce or non-existent . Conservation hunts by foreign sportsmen do not increase the harvested numbers of bears; rather, foreign hunters purchase a small percentage of the harvest quota from participating communities. Reducing the number of US sportsmen legally hunting polar bears would not result in fewer bears being killed as local hunters will, in every case, fully utilize the allotted tag numbers . The loss of revenue from conservation hunts may actually increase demand for a larger Inuit subsistence quota to help offset the loss of needed revenue that visiting hunters brought into the community. The willingness to kill nuisance bears that approach remote villages is currently thwarted by the community’s recognition of the very high economic and social values seen in polar bears. In the absence of a lucrative hunting arrangement, the value of polar bears is likely to be reduced and bears near villages are more likely to be viewed as a nuisance than a valued resource.
The polar bear technical committee (meeting in Edmonton 5-9 Feb 07) represents a very knowledgeable group with great expertise which will help lead the data collection and management of polar bear populations. Their collected wisdom is pivotal to our biological and distributional understanding. Native groups’ observations may strongly supplement this understanding through hypothesis formulation, mechanism of population change, and bear behaviors within a smaller geographic range. These cross-linkages have started and need to be encouraged .
Continued debate is essential for allocation of polar bear kills. This specific mortality factor is not considered a singular risk in the proposed ESA petition; therefore, if polar bears are re-classified as endangered, exemptions for managed harvest and importation are important considerations for the act.