High prices leave the polar bear population at risk

In search of big profits, hunters in Quebec are tracking down polar bears at an unsustainable rate
Inuit hunter Lew Philip lifts the skin of a female polar bear he shot and killed during the traditional hunt on Frobisher Bay near Tonglait, Nunavut in Canada’s arctic Sunday February 2, 2003. Many Inuit blend modern life with traditional ways, going out in the dead of winter in search of nanuq, the polar bear. (CP PHOTO/Kevin Frayer)
Hard to bear
Kevin Frayer/CP Photo

Earlier this year, word began spreading among the Inuit families of the Belcher Islands, a treeless archipelago of rock and snow in Hudson Bay, that their cousins across the sea ice in Quebec had shot many dozens of polar bears this winter. For some in Nunavut, the rumour rankled. Hunters there must follow strict quotas governing the number of polar bears each community can harvest. Their cousins in northern Quebec, meanwhile, don’t.

At a time when polar bear hides are fetching between $5,000 and $11,000 at auction—double the price of just a couple of years ago—it was the kind of gossip that could only excite envy. “That means more income for them,” says Lucassie Arragutainaq, manager of a local Nunavut hunters and trappers association. A polite, cautious man who likes to stress the high cost of gas and ammunition in the north, Arragutainaq couldn’t say whether the number of polar bear kills in Quebec was as high as he’d heard: “It may be,” he allowed, “but I could be wrong.”

Actually, the number was even higher than initially reported. Hunters from the community of Inukjuak, Que., shot as many as 60 polar bears this winter, perhaps more—the official numbers aren’t yet released—all of them likely from a population centred in southern Hudson Bay that’s particularly at risk. The situation is this: high prices for polar bear skins on the world market is putting Canada’s oldest industry—the fur trade—on a collision course with what’s become the most potent symbol of global warming: the polar bear.

The sensitivities surrounding the animal are further complicated by how peripatetic a bunch of polar bears tend to be. They can travel thousands of kilometres, and satellite telemetry collars have recently shown Canadian polar bears sauntering off to Russia. The southern Hudson Bay population that the Quebec hunters tracked so effectively this winter is no different, and roams between the jurisdictions of Quebec, Nunavut and Ontario—making it a shared resource.

Divvying up the bears has never been a problem before: the same Quebec hunters had harvested only four bears in each of the previous five years (quotas across Canada vary according to geography and treaty agreements, many dating to the 1970s). Now, higher hide prices have caused the kill rate to outstrip what biologists warn is a sustainable annual harvest for the population: just 45 kills a year, in total, across the three jurisdictions. The fear outside Quebec is that the province’s permissiveness may cause a run on bears and, ultimately, harsher regulations everywhere. “Without a management system in northern Quebec, if they continue to hunt uncontrolled, the possibility down the road could be restricting the hunting for people here,” says Allan Rumbolt, a member of Nunavut’s legislative assembly whose riding includes the Belcher Islands.

New demand for white fur rugs and other polar bear paraphernalia comes principally from Russia and China, where growing disposable incomes are putting the status symbols within reach of new buyers. “The Chinese like things that are white—white polar bear, white foxes, white wolves,” says Calvin Kania, president and CEO of Furcanada, a Nanaimo, B.C., fur-trading and taxidermy business that depends on a network of Aboriginal hunters across the Arctic.

Other factors have a less direct influence on prices. After 2008, when the U.S. listed the polar bear as protected under its Endangered Species Act, banning among other things the import of such hunting trophies as skins, claws and “baculum”—penis bones—Inuit communities lost a lucrative sport hunting business in which American hunters shelled out as much as US$60,000 each for tours into the Arctic wilds. Many Inuit replaced that income selling hides to southern fur traders and auctioneers. Also raising prices is the possibility polar bears will be placed in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, putting a halt to the international trade in polar bear parts. During talks in Doha, Qatar, last year, the U.S. pushed unsuccessfully for just that (“We were all sweating bullets,” Kania says).

What’s not in dispute is that this winter’s harvest in northern Quebec isn’t sustainable—something even the Quebec government appears ready to admit. It has invited representatives from Nunavut and Ontario, as well as Aboriginal groups, to Quebec City in June to discuss how to manage its shared polar bear population. Commonly held resources elsewhere have led to tragedy; perhaps this will be different.