On May 14 of 2008, Dirk Kempthorne, the Secretary of Interior, followed the urgings of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall and placed the polar bear species (Ursus maritimus) on the endangered species list. Hunting bans were implemented to prevent the importing of hunted polar bear hides.
Before this, a powerful controversy had been developing in the scientific world and continues even now. Environmentalists and many scientists believe that, due to global warming, the ice habitat of the polar bears is receding and endangering them and that in a matter of several decades they could possibly become extinct.
Other scientists believe this to be incorrect. Prominent Canadian biologist Mitchell Taylor views the receding ice not as a danger to the bears but as a possible advantage as it frees up more territory for bears to find prey and possibly render polar bears’ environment less harsh. He points out that polar bear populations have increased from 5,000 in the 1960s to between 20,000 to 25,000 individuals in the 2000s. Theyâ€™ve survived even more extreme climate changes in the past, he says.[i]
Andrew Derocher, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and a member of the World Conservation Union, has an opposing view. He believes that the retreating ice will impact the bears harshly through important habitat loss. The regulations governing trophy hunting the bears and their prey have contributed to the polar bearâ€™s population rise, he claims, not the retreating ice.
The Inuits, the native Eskimo people in Canada, Alaska and Greenland, side against the hunting ban. An Inuit spokesman, Duane Smith, says, â€œI donâ€™t see how listing it as threatened will compliment the sustainability of the population. Itâ€™s the climate change thatâ€™s the problem, not the sustainable hunting of the polar bears.â€[ii]
The Inuits believe that the polar bears are hunted at levels that do not put the population at danger. The Inuits have lived in Alaska, Canada and Greenland for more than a thousand years, coexisting with the polar bear.
In papers and articles discussing the pros and cons of the hunting ban, the most noted interest of the Inuits in this conflict is the annual one and a half million dollars that is brought into small Inuit communities by the polar bear hunts. Some people argue that the reason the Inuits oppose the ban is because theyâ€™ll lose the trophy hunt profits. But a 2010 study released by the Humane Society International and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, â€œThe Economics of Polar Bear Trophy Hunting in Canada”[iii],Â shows that perhaps this is not such an important thing, because
oÂ Â Â Â Â Â As much as two-thirds of all Inuits communities do not host and lead polar bear hunts, in spite of the urging of the government.
oÂ Â Â Â Â Â The sum of polar bear hunts only supply one tenth of one percent of economic earnings of Nanavut.
oÂ Â Â Â Â Â For 98% of polar bear trophy hunting communities in Nanavut and the Northwest territories, the trophy hunts provide only 2% or less of average income for residents.
oÂ Â Â Â Â Â Only in 3 of 31 polar bear trophy hunting communities in Canada earn more than 2%, and even then it does not exceed 10-13% of average income for the communities.
oÂ Â Â Â Â Â The polar bear trophy hunting makes an economical income difference for only several dozen individuals, at the most.
However, the polar bearâ€™s importance to the Inuit is more than economic. The polar bearâ€”or â€œNanuq,â€ as the bear is know to the Inuitâ€”is the Inuitâ€™s most sacred animal. In traditional Inuit legends, the bear is a wise and powerful beast and is even almost human. There are some legends of polar bear men: beings that walked upright, talked, and lived in igloos, shedding their fur skins in the privacy of their homes.
The polar bears are also one of the most important resource animals to the Inuits. The meat is a substantial food source and the hide is used as material for clothing, especially womenâ€™s boots. Only the liver is thrown away, a part of the bear that will make even sled dogs that eat it violently sick.
The Inuits, who have lived with Nanuq for over a thousand years, insist that the polar bears are not in danger and are in fact increasing in number. Perhaps theyâ€™re right. Scientists squabble and political forces argue, each of them clinging to their own island of ice. Some people see gain in the rise or fall of the polar bear, and others are determined to honestly help the magnificent beasts. Only further studies and the passing of time will yield answers to help settle this controversy.
[i] Article: â€œA Reexamination of Climate Change Issuesâ€. November 23, 2009.
[ii] Article: â€œPolar Bears Are The Wrong Target Say Inuitâ€.Â Clive Tesar.
[iii] Article: â€œStudy Finds Little Local Economic Value in Trophy Hunting: Polar Bear Hunts are of Economic Importance Only to a Handful of Individualsâ€. March 5, 2010.
Val K. is a 14-year-old writer who lives in a corner of Utah with her parents, two siblings, and assorted pets. She has written three novels, two of which are part of a fantasy series. Besides writing, she participates in such activities as reading, drawing, weaving, biking, hiking, catching snakes, and chores.