Polar bear encounters on the rise in some Nunavut communities

Daisy Arnaquq of Qikiqtarjuaq says she is used to seeing polar bears on the hour-long boat ride to her cabin near the community on the southeast coast of Baffin Island.

In the last five years, she and her family would encounter about one polar bear per summer and "they would just take off right away," she said.

But this year three different female bears with cubs paid them visits.

"The dogs would start barking, and we’d look out the window and see the mother with two cubs coming into our camp ... It's scary. You don't know what they are going to do — attack you, destroy your property."

She said bears are also showing up year-round in the community itself and the area where the sled dogs are kept, instead of just in the fall and early winter.

"That never used to happen," said Arnaquq.

Internationally, three people have been killed by polar bears in the last three months, including a British teenager on Norway’s Spitsbergen island, a 33-year-old man in the eastern Russia region of Chukotka and a technician working at a weather station in Russia’s Franz Josef Land.

Polar bear biologist Andrew Derocher of the University of Alberta blames melting ice and climate change.

"Polar bears are being pushed ashore earlier in the summer and they are staying on land for longer," he said.

"We rarely see one fatality from polar bears a year. Some of these bears we think have been pushed off the ice early, away from their primary prey, and they get desperate."

From July 2010 to July 2011, about 48 problem bears were killed in Nunavut.

Dirkus Gissing, director of wildlife management for the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Environment, said they are only seeing more polar bear-human encounters in a few of Nunavut's communities, such as Qikiqtarjuaq, Arviat and Resolute Bay.

"We have not seen a significant change or increase in problem bears overall," he said. "There are some communities where you may see an increase over the last number of years, and there's different reasons for those increases in those specific communities."

Late freeze-ups in the fall when the bears move up the coastline, such as in western Hudson Bay, lead to increased bears in communities such as Arviat and Rankin Inlet, he said.

Increases in bears sighted in or near communities can also be linked to lower harvest numbers and timing of polar bear hunts, he said. If hunters go out earlier, bears are harvested before they can reach the community.

Bowhead whale carcasses, since a limited hunt was reinstated in 1996, have also attracted bears.

"The carcasses near the communities, that attracted a lot of bears resulting in more bears near the community and sometimes in the community," he said.

That's the case in Qikiqtarjuaq, he said, where a whale carcass has lain outside the community for the last few years.

The Nunavut government expects in the long run to see more human-bear encounters and it's developing programs to reduce human-bear conflicts, including educating to people on how to avoid attracting bears to camps.

Delegates from five Arctic nations will gather in Iqaluit this week to talk about the conservation status of polar bears and their habitat and discuss a circumpolar action plan.

The five signatories to the 1973 Agreement on Conservation of Polar Bears — Norway, Russia, U.S., Denmark and Canada — will send delegates to the meeting to take place Oct. 24 to 26.

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