Inuit want greater say in polar bear management

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

A decision by the federal government to name polar bears officially as a species of special concern is getting cautious approval among northern Inuit.

Environment Minister Peter Kent made the announcement on Thursday that polar bears would be categorized under the Species at Risk Act.

"Canada is home to two-thirds of the world's polar bear population and we have a unique conservation responsibility to effectively care for them," Kent said in a statement.

"Our Government is demonstrating leadership in protecting this iconic species. Listing the polar bear under the Species at Risk Act represents an important contribution to protecting our environment and the animals that live in it."

The law requires the government to prepare a management plan for the bears within three years.

"It should be noted that the plan will not result in (hunting) prohibition," Environment Canada said in a news release "The ultimate aim of the plan will be to alleviate human threats in order to remove the polar bear from the Species at Risk list."

The department said it held extensive consultations with provincial and territorial governments, wildlife management boards, aboriginal groups and other stakeholders.

"The vast majority supported the listing," it said in its news release.

Polar bears have been listed because the sea ice that is crucial for their hunting has been shrinking, which many blame on climate change.

The Toronto Star reported there are between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears in the five Arctic countries. Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway and Greenland have co-drafted a National Polar Bear Conservation Strategy.

There are 13 subpopulations in Canada, of which four are said to be in trouble due to climate change but also over-hunting.

The Star noted that while the move won support in southern Canada, many northern communities worry the decision will mean further cuts to hunting - more than 500 bears are killed annually.

The Inuit Tapirlit Kanatami said the decision creates "special new responsibilities" for the federal government, including giving Inuit more involvement in creating the polar bear management plan.

"To ensure that Inuit rights and land claims obligations and processes will be adhered to and protected," Environment Canada must involve Inuit from the four Inuit land claim regions in that plan's development," the organization said, according to the Nunatsiaq News.

"Key among Inuit expectations is the increased involvement and use of Inuit traditional knowledge in the polar bear research and management decision-making processes.

"Inuit are a vital part of the success of this endeavour."