Kitikmeot hunters seek increase in polar bear tags

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As research progresses into the fate of Nunavut polar bears in the face of climate change, Kitikmeot harvesters are hoping for greater clarity and, perhaps, the return of a greater number of hunting tags.

James Qitsualik, chair of the Gjoa Haven Hunters and Trappers Association, says the polar bear population around the Kitikmeot community is on the rise.
photo courtesy of Oliver Porter

In Gjoa Haven, the number of polar bear tags in the M’Clintock Channel and Gulf of Boothia have been reduced to 12 from 33 in the past, according to James Qitsualik, chair of the Gjoa Haven Hunters and Trappers Association. Qitsualik is confident that tags issued should increase again, even if modestly.

“We’re seeing healthy bears, but we’re seeing an increase in (bear population) so much so that we’re seeing a lot more bears in Gjoa Haven, especially young male bears that tend to get pushed out of prime locations by these bigger bears,” Qitsualik said.

The Nunavut Wildlife Management Board decides how many polar bears can be hunted by each community while the Government of Nunavut makes changes to regulations official.

One of the conditions in the M’Clintock Channel, northwest of Gjoa Haven, is to only harvest one female for every three males, a ratio that Qitsualik called “ridiculous.”

“They don’t do that with whales, muskox or any other tagged animal,” he said. “They should just give us the tags and, here, get your bear.”

In Cambridge Bay, the number of tags has dropped to seven from 15 in the past, said Bobby Greenley, chair of the community’s Hunters and Trappers Organization (HTO).

BearWatch is a program that has brought together harvesters in Gjoa Haven with southern scientists as well as GN researchers. The program incorporates non-invasive techniques to obtain polar bear health and population data such as using hair and fecal samples for DNA analysis.
Ansgar Walk/Wikimedia Commons photo

“It does affect a lot of the (HTO) members. A lot of people live off of that type of hunting at that time of the year,” he said. “There’s some food for the community and they get to sell the hide and have some money coming in for themselves.”

Rather than wait on the GN to raise the number of tags again, Cambridge Bay has been in negotiation with Ulukhaktok to acquire some of that NWT community’s unused tags in a shared zone, said Greenley.

Polar bear tags are reviewed as new population data is made available. Studies on M’Clintock and Gulf of Boothia populations were carried out from 2014-2016 and 2015-2017, respectively, according to the Department of Environment.

Gjoa Haven harvesters have been determined for decades to use non-invasive techniques to monitor polar bear health and populations, said Qitsualik. Many community members believe the use of helicopters, tranquilizer darts and tracking collars are harmful to the animals. To further the non-invasive approach, Gjoa Haven harvesters have teamed up with Genome Canada, a not-for-profit organization that’s funded by the Government of Canada, for a research program known as BearWatch. It also includes university scientists and the GN’s Department of Environment.

Bears’ hair and fecal samples are collected for DNA analysis.

BearWatch has resulted in a database that combines Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit – traditional knowledge – with “polar bear genetic identity and ecological and physiological measures that permit assessment of bear health,” according to the project’s website. BearWatch “will integrate polar bear traditional ecological knowledge and science as well as historical data, allowing the project team to compare insights from each knowledge system and translate findings into a community-based monitoring protocol that will track polar bear population responses to environmental change.”

The bears’ hair samples are collected from posts, wrapped with a bit of barbed wire, placed in the ground with a piece of seal meat attached, Qitsualik explained. Tufts of hair are snagged while the bears snack on the seal.

“We proved that this way is better than the old way,” he said. “BearWatch has proven we can get the same results for much cheaper and we don’t need to harass bears, drug them, handle them.”

Arctic Bay and Kimmirut are trying to arrange to have harvesters from Gjoa Haven come to their communities to demonstrate the procedures, according to Qitsualik.

“They’re very interested,” he said, adding that there’s also talk of expanding BearWatch’s non-invasive practices to Greenland and Alaska.