Wildlife officials mull quotas for world's last unregulated polar bear hunt

Public hearings begin Wednesday in the tiny community of Inukjuak in Quebec's arctic region to discuss putting quotas on the world's last unregulated polar bear hunt.

Scientists say climate change is starting to affect the health of the south Hudson Bay population, and voluntary limits on the hunt should be reduced — especially as Canada's management policies come under increasing international scrutiny.

But the aboriginal communities in Quebec, Ontario and Nunavut that hunt that population of bears aren't willing to reduce their take.

"It is an interesting situation," said Andrew Derocher, a University of Alberta polar bear biologist and member of the international Polar Bear Specialist Group.

"In response to a severe spike in harvest in Quebec, we move quickly to improve management, but then lose all credibility when we set a harvest level that is far beyond what is sustainable."

The problem dates back to 2011, when high prices for polar bear hides drove hunters in northern Quebec, called Nunavik, to dramatically increase their take. A single pair of hunters were responsible for more than 50 kills in a region that historically saw little hunting.

Groups that hunt the population — Inuit and Cree — quickly huddled and agreed with an overall voluntary limit of 60 bears a year. That limit has been followed, but the federal environment minister has directed the Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board to hold hearings on hard-and-fast quotas.

Meanwhile, the most recent survey of that bear population has been released. While it said population numbers were stable at about 951, reproduction and health is falling as climate change reduces the time bears spend on sea ice hunting seals, their main prey.

"Significant ongoing declines in body condition and vital rates have been documented for bears in southern Hudson Bay," said an Environment Canada document filed at the hearing.

Scientists such as Derocher said a 60-bear harvest may have been sustainable in the past, but not now.

Some governments agree. Nunavut suggests 43 is a good limit; Quebec wants 44.

But nobody wants their slice of the pie reduced.

Nunavut said the community of Sanikiluaq should get to keep its 25-bear quota because it has faithfully followed the territory's management plans. Makivik Corporation, the land claim group for Quebec Inuit, said the overall limit should stay at 60 and called for more research.

Umiajaq, a minuscule Quebec coastal community northeast of James Bay, wants to hang on to its five-bear quota. The hunters of Kuujjuarapik, in their submission, pleaded with the board not to reduce their tags.

"Please be fair to us," they wrote. "Give instead of taking from us all the time."

The issue comes as Canada — the only country in the world that allows polar bear sport-hunting — is being increasingly questioned on its management policies.

International support is growing for classifying all polar bear products in the most restrictive trade category, equivalent to that used for elephant ivory. Hunting quotas that aren't scientifically well-supported will only increase that pressure, said Environment Canada's submission.

"Providing a clear rationale for setting harvest levels will be particularly important in a context of heightened national and international attention on polar bear management."

Derocher said Canada is out of step with the rest of the world on bear management, as virtually all hunter groups seek to increase quotas.

"There's very strong pressure across the Canadian populations to increase harvest levels," he said.

"It is going to be a challenge to convince the international community that our science is strong enough to support these increases."