Friday, May 29, 2009

Teetering on the Brink!

Have you ever teetered on the brink of an issue? An issue many you often agree with may feel is black-and-white yet you can see the grey? Or even worse you can see the "black-and-white" of both sides? I am teetering on the brink of an issue that many of my readers may find completely obvious. It is the issue of Polar Bear hunting and endangerment.

I am extremely concerned about the endangerment of the polar bear. If you remember I worked in Churchill several years and have had some amazing experiences with these majestic animals. I however also lived and worked with the Inuit people of the arctic and know what subsistence hunting means to them. Now this is where this becomes an issue of complexity. As most people are aware the largest portion of the world's polar bear population resides in Canada and though many may question it the Canadian government does allow a controlled hunting of the polar bear by providing Inuit communities with a specific number of polar bear "tags". The Inuit in each community decide how many of those tags they wish to use themselves and how many they will use to allow outside hunters, often very well-off US hunters to purchase. This purchase meant important income for the community and for the Inuit hunters who act as guides and use their traditional knowledge of the bear to provide the outside hunters with a successful hunt. Wait! Don't start screaming at your computer monitor quite yet! I have always been aggravated by the fact that US hunters were able to invade our Canadian north for their trophies but after delving into the facts I realized there was more at stake than anyone can imagine in the south.

Let us start with statistics. There are 13 polar bear populations in Canada. The population trends vary for each. Five out of the thirteen populations are declining, five are stable, and two are increasing {the final population has insufficient data to define a trend but appears to be at less risk of decline in the next 10 years}. If one looks at a map of the polar bear populations and their trends one can see that most of those areas of the arctic in which the Inuit hunt polar bears are populations on the increase or stable. This could be coincidental or I believe it could be due to sound ecological hunting practices. Which populations are on a serious decline? Primarily those further north and those further south. The very popular Western Hudson's bay polar bear population is on a definite decline. This would be the population around our beloved Churchill. Though Churchill residents may have difficulty believing the population decline as they are inundated every year with their large furry visitors and of course the influx of tourists they attract! Churchill has always been the "polar bear capital". It is the ideal location for polar bears to land when the ice melts in the spring and the perfect place for polar bears to jump aboard the newly formed ice flows in the fall. In the meantime mother's can den and other bears can find less than favourable "sustenance" scavenging the garbage dump and the town. I would hazard a guess, though I must advice you now I am no expert, that tourism and habitat disturbance has a large role to play in the decline of this population of bears. Far north populations such as those of the South Beaufort, Kane Basin, and Norwegian Bay are likely on the decline due to climate change.
And it is Climate change and habitat destruction which is essentially the greatest threat to the existence of the polar bear! So while we sit on our cushy couches tut-tutting and shaking our heads at the horrors of hunting the beautiful polar bear and then proceed to hop in our car to buy a case of bottled water at the corner store {I speak metaphorically for some and literally for others} it becomes questionable as to who is really killing the polar bear! As I've written in a previous post it is the changes in ice conditions caused by climate change that greatly effects the polar bears' ability to hunt for seals, and survive out on the ice flows. As the ice takes longer to form the polar bears' period of starvation increases, as ice flows break up more quickly and more unpredictably bears drown in arctic waters or must desert their seal hunting grounds sooner!

Though US hunters may no longer be able to purchase the Inuit tags, the Inuit will continue to use them for themselves. Those same bears will be hunted. The meat will still be eaten by those same Inuit people whom were left the meat by disinterested US hunters before. The skins will possibly be purchased by Canadians or used for extra clothing like mitts. What has changed is that those Inuit individuals and communities who relied on the income of polar bear hunters to perhaps pay for a few more grocery bills at the local Coop or Northern Store will not buy those groceries and the community--which hoped perhaps for the income from US hunters' room and board, purchase of supplies, and maybe a few arts and crafts--will perhaps employ fewer locals. Unless you have seen how an Inuit hunter lives in a very small remote Nunavut community, unless you've paid $200 for one bag of groceries at a northern Co-op store you will never know the impact! I would never say that hunting for trophies is a noble pursuit and I would never say that people viewing this as a black-and-white issue are wrong in their convictions but I do feel their is a grey area that is sometimes unseen or unheard. The Inuit have been a people of little environmental impact. They are a "traditional society", I'll be it one now tainted by our own! They still hunt for survival. Many Inuit families regardless of social assistance, and casual employment could not feed themselves without subsistence hunting and special income opportunities. Caribou and seals are their staples but a whale can provide meat for a community and a bear for an extended family.

How do we learn to weigh all these complicated elements? How do we resign our consciences to the various sides of an issue so dear to our hearts? I am not in total disagreement with the American decision to ban US polar bear hunting and to put the polar bear on the endangered species list but those people most effected really need to be included in such processes and deliberations. A people and an animal so bonded must be considered as part of the same ecosystem. The Inuit and the polar bear are a kin to one another. They have co-existed for time in memorial. They hunt the same prey, the seal, and they utilize the same territory, and on occasion they hunt one another. I just live in the hopes that southerners come to realize that it is our society which is at fault, it is our society that is in "self-destruct" mode and to pass the buck on a society closer to nature than our own and to punish them with our holier-than-thou attitudes calls for us to wake up to the possibility that we are not always right even when our conviction and passion tells us we are!

As the post title indicates I am teetering. Please do not send me "hate" comments, and do not judge me based on this post unless you have lived in the arctic and advocated for polar bear conservation as I have. I think it takes a strong look at both sides to be in the boat that I am in! I just thought approaching this issue from a different angle might be significant. I am environmentally conscious but also care very strongly for human rights and in particular the rights of traditional/aboriginal societies. It is a struggle I understand within myself after having lived in aboriginal societies and having begun to understand the ways of a hunting and gathering society.
FYI: The only picture in which a polar bear skin appears is the very first one at the top of this post! All the other skins and clothing in the following pictures are those of caribou and perhaps some seal.

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