Friday, March 09, 2007

Polar Bear Statement by Nunavut Nation

Hon. Patterk Netser, Minister of Environment
Government of Nunavut

Presentation to the United States Fish & Wildlife Service Public Hearing on the proposal to list polar Bears as “threatened” under the
US Endangered Species Act
Washington, DC
March 5, 2007

Good evening. My name is Patterk Netser and I am the Minister of Environment for the Government of Nunavut. With me tonight are Jane Cooper, Assistant Deputy Minister and Robert Carson, Assistant Deputy Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs.

I am also a hunter who grew up in a community located in Coral Harbour, Nunavut, Canada. I am not here to tell you that the climate is constant or that the sea ice is not important to polar bears. I am not here to deny that the warming trend observed over the last 12-15 years has affected sea ice.

I am here to inform you that Nunavut has or shares most of the polar bear populations in the world, and that most of our populations are abundant, productive, and sustaining the current managed harvest levels.

This is the current scientific information. This is also the current Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (or traditional ecological knowledge).

I appreciate that this perspective is entirely different than the somewhat hysterical message that has been spread across the media in recent months.

I ask that what I am going to share be seriously considered because it is not only based on what I have read, or based on a climate model. It is also based on my own personal observations and experience and the observations of other Nunavummiut, including the polar bear biologists.

Science is valued by the aboriginal people who have a direct responsibility for the conservation of polar bears throughout the Canadian north. Please understand that I am not just here to support Inuit hunters. I am also here because I am the Minister responsible for conservation of polar bears in the jurisdiction that has or shares most of that species world-wide.

My message to the Service is that declaring polar bears to be a threatened species world-wide is not only premature and inconsistent with the Endangered Species Act criteria for such a listing, but it will also hurt hunters and will work against conservation of polar bears. We will be providing a written submission as part of the review process described in the Federal Register. I will briefly outline our information for you this evening.

Of the 12 populations that are within or shared with Nunavut, only one (Western Hudson Bay) has been identified as having been reduced by the combined effects of climate change and other factors. The study that provided this result was a mark-recapture study that did not search the entire summer-retreat area used by this population in open water season.

In 2006, the Canadian Polar Bear Technical Committee agreed that the area that was missed needed to be surveyed before the results could be accepted as final.

Inuit hunters in this area have reported significant numbers of polar bears in the areas that were not searched. According to the scientific study, the population has only been reduced by about 250 individuals. The question remains, is the reduction due to population decline or to a shift in distribution? The new survey is necessary to answer, and it is planned for autumn of 2007. We are conducting the follow-up survey independently because it is important that it gets done.

There is no direct information to suggest that any of Nunavut’s other populations have been reduced by climate change or the associated reductions in sea ice. A recent (2003-2005) mark-recapture survey in the Southern Hudson Bay population (adjacent to Western Hudson Bay population) showed a decline in body condition, but no decline in numbers over the past 18 years.

An ongoing study of the Davis Strait population indicates a dramatic increase in numbers over the past 25 years, and continuing high densities of polar bears in one of the most southern populations (where sea ice is currently less than 50% coverage at maximum in some years).

The decline in the Western Hudson Bay population can be arrested and reversed by reducing harvesting until conditions improve, and this is under consideration. Our harvesting issues are addressed by co-management processes that ensure our wildlife regulations are supported by our hunters.

Does this summary describe a species headed for extinction?

According to the recent status report provided by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Polar Bear Specialists Group, Nunavut has or shares 12 of 19 polar bear populations numbering about 15,000 of the world total of about 23,000.

In other words, about 65% of the estimated total for the population are within or shared with Nunavut. The worst-case scenario IPCC projections for reductions in ice cover still show summer ice in Canada’s Arctic Archipelago and winter sea ice for most of the current range of polar bears within their 50 year projections. The time frame for ESA status determination is 3 generations -- which for polar bears is about 45 years.

Even if the two Hudson Bay populations were eliminated, there would still be more than half of the world’s polar bears inhabiting areas that were not ice-free (even in a worst case scenario) in the summer.

Does that sound like a species headed for extinction?

The simple truth is that polar bears have never been more abundant in Nunavut. This is due to our progressive management system that is actively supported by the Inuit harvesters who are not only the main beneficiaries of polar bear harvesting, but also actively involved in research and management initiatives. The information from our hunters is that polar bears have remained abundant in spite of climate change impacts on sea ice.

Some reports have been circulated to the effect that the hunters have been fooled by changes in polar bear behaviour which is causing the bears to visit communities more frequently because they are starving.

This suggests that hunters are easily misled by local conditions, and ignores that hunters range widely over all areas of both onshore summer retreats and the sea ice. The suggestion that they are so easily misled is not only silly, but also shows a disturbing lack of respect for indigenous knowledge.

If the information from people who have a lifetime of experience with polar bears in all seasons is useful … that information is that polar bears are abundant in Nunavut.

Nunavummiut (the people of Nunavut) support the reduction of green house gasses, and we are very much aware that the climate has generally warmed in most areas of the north over the past 15 years. However, we disagree that it is acceptable to use a species -- and to distort the purposes of important legislation-- to achieve a political goal. Even when we agree with the goal.

The status of polar bears should depend on how polar bears are doing, and not be based on the need for a “poster species” for a good cause. Polar bears may be an icon to some southern activists, but they are a part of our Inuit culture and our northern traditional economy.

An ESA listing of “threatened” would not affect our management practices in Nunavut because our management is based on conservation, according to best information.

However, an ESA listing of “threatened” will have effects on US hunters who would come to Nunavut for polar bear sport hunts, and could have cascading effects that would reduce or eliminate international import/export of polar bear trophies or skins.

This would harm Inuit hunters that depend on the revenue from guiding sport hunts or harvested hide sales for their families. The action to list polar bears may not actually help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it will definitely compromise the livelihood of Inuit. I do not think that you really want to do this. We need to work together on climate change, however listing polar bears is not necessarily the solution.

We are not saying that your legislation should not be respected and applied. We are saying just the opposite. We are asking that you apply your law fairly and that the status of polar bears is based on all of the information about polar bears, not just the information that supports listing. We are specifically asking that you consider the speculative nature of 50 year simulations from climate models.

If these models turn out to be correct, even the worst-case projections suggest it will be more than 50 years before polar bears would actually begin to be threatened as a species. The scientific information to date indicates a possible total decline of only 250 bears in one of the world’s 19 populations. Please don’t be intimidated into a premature decision that would have few or no positive implications for polar bear conservation, but would harm Inuit harvesters.

Thank you for the time to provide you with my information. If any of you would like to come to the Nunavut and see for yourself that what I have said is true, you would be welcome.