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Study shows polar bear increase in Davis Strait

Stephanie McDonald
Northern News Services
Published Monday, September 17, 2007

IQALUIT - Climate change is not hurting polar bear populations in the Davis Strait area of Nunavut, according to Dr. Mitch Taylor, manager of wildlife research and a polar bear biologist with the GN's Department of Environment.

NNSL Photo/Graphic

Biologist Mitch Taylor uses a Nunavut map to point out the Davis Strait area, where a three-year survey of the polar bear population is coming to an end. - Stephanie McDonald/NNSL photo

In fact, polar bear populations along the Davis Strait are healthy and their numbers increasing, an ongoing study is indicating.

Reports in national and international press have projected that two-thirds of the world's polar bear populations will be lost within 50 years due to the loss of sea ice.

Canada has two thirds of the world's polar bears. Nunavut is home to 12 of Canada's 13 polar bear populations, totalling an estimated 14,780.

Taylor and co-worker Dr. Lily Peacock have been working for the past three years on a polar bear inventory in the Davis Strait, the first in the area in 20 years. The Davis Strait encompasses the area from Cape Dyer on the eastern side of Baffin Island, through Cumberland Sound, and continues on to the area surrounding Kimmirut.

Parts of Ungava Bay in Quebec and sections of Labrador are also included in the Davis Strait.

The results of their study have yet to be released, but Taylor revealed last week that the numbers would be contrary to those released by the U.S. Geological Survey.

"Results will confirm hunters' impressions, that the polar bear population is productive," Taylor said.

Last year 841 polar bears were counted in the survey area and halfway through this year's survey, approximately 600 have been counted. Taylor estimates that this year's number could be as high as 1,000.

Inuit qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) is being used in a parallel initiative, and the scientific research is being used to back up the IQ. Through personal observation and in speaking with harvesters, Sakiasie Sowdlooapik, a conservation officer in Pangnirtung, agrees with Taylor's assessment that the polar bear population is thriving.

When he started working for the Department of Environment 12 years ago, Sowdlooapik said that only one or two polar bears would wander through Pangnirtung in a year. Now, he receives almost daily reports of polar bears in popular camping sites, in outpost camps, and in the vicinity of the community.

"We could be looking at the possibility of increasing (hunting) quotas," Taylor said. "We are seeing high densities of bears in great shape."

Currently Kimmirut has a hunting quota of four, Iqaluit 23, and Pangnirtung 19, for a total of 46 in the Davis Strait. Taylor claims that the numbers of polar bears are high, as they always have been, due to sound management practices.

"There are maybe even too many bears now," he said.

Asked what should be done if the American government bans sports hunters from bringing polar bear hides and heads into the country, he said, "We'd probably respond by increasing harvesting rates so polar bears don't become over abundant and become a safety issue."

Sowdlooapik said that the Pangnirtung Hunters and Trappers Association has for 30 years been lobbying the GN and the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board to have the community's quota increased. Sports hunters share the quota with local hunters. "They bring quite a bit of economic opportunity," Sowdlooapik said.

While Taylor doesn't dispute that climate change is happening, he thinks that recent worries over polar bear population loss is extreme and premature.

"They are generalizing to the rest of the world that we are losing them ... How can our observations be in such dire opposition to theirs?"