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September 29, 2009

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White bear takes center stage in climate change drama

HENRY Jr. slept in the unhappy arms of his hunter father, who was worrying about the boy's future after a polar bear season he'd rather forget.

"It's too late to be a hunter. I don't want him to do that," Henry Nasogaluak says of his son. "It's a hard life, and it got harder with the ban by the United States."

Baby Henry may not grow up to spend his life on the Canadian ice, with gun and dog team. But the white bear itself, ancient prey of his Inuvialuit people, seems destined to spend the coming decades as a target in 21st-century debates over what to do as the world warms.

It's a story whose latest chapter will take the Inuvialuit, the Inuit of the remote coast in the Northwest Territories of Canada, from the familiar frozen vastness of their northern sea to the confines of a Washington courtroom, where they're contesting a US ban on imports of polar bearskin rugs.

That 2008 ban has wrecked an estimated US$3-million-a-year business in which Canadian Inuit guides took American sportsmen on the big-game trophy hunt of their lifetimes, at rates of US$20,000 to US$30,000 for a two-week dogsled trek in quest of their own half-ton "ice bear."

Now blocked from bringing the skins home to adorn their dens, the southern hunters aren't coming north. Last season, Nasogaluak got no takers for his "tags," a three-bear quota that had helped him earn up to US$40,000 a year.

Bleak future

"It's just like I got fired out of my job. No compensation, no nothing," he tells a visitor to his small wood-frame home in the seaside hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk. "When you're 61 years old, you can't do anything else, because I don't know how to work any other job, because that was my job for over 40 years."

Further chapters in the polar bear story may unfold in the coming months, as northern nations consider how to protect an animal whose world is melting around it.

The Canadian government must decide whether to declare the bear a species at risk, as Ontario and Manitoba provinces and the US government have done.

American wildlife activists, meanwhile, say they will push next year to end the international trade in polar bear parts under the global treaty banning commerce in endangered species.

That trade appears lucrative. One Canadian Website offers worldwide for three-meter polar bearskin rugs priced at US$7,995 and US$8,995.

The fearsome white bear, the world's largest land meat-eater, may be uniquely susceptible to climate change as rising temperatures fast shrink its habitat, the Arctic sea ice.

Many bears spend their whole lives on the ice, mating, giving birth and hunting for their main prey, the ringed seal. But Arctic summers may be almost free of sea ice within 30 years, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted last April.

Because of the harsh conditions, the remoteness and the long distances the bears travel, biologists cannot easily pin down trends in the species population.

"We're struggling with this in the polar bear research world because we can't be out there constantly doing polar bear estimates," says Marsha Branigan, a wildlife specialist with the Northwest Territories government.

This July, however, a global authority reached some conclusions about the species, believed to number 20,000 to 25,000 around the north.

In its first assessment since 2005, the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that eight of the 19 bear subpopulations are in decline.

Paradoxically, although scientists have documented a 25-percent decline in numbers around Hudson Bay, Inuit there and elsewhere in eastern Canada and in Greenland report seeing more bears.

Erik Born, Danish chairman of the IUCN polar bear group, said he believes "they see more polar bears because the polar bears have changed their distribution" - that is, more swim ashore in those areas as springtime ice grows scarcer, despite the fact there's little food for them on land.

Ice shrinks

On the flat tundra coastline of far northwest Canada, the hunters fear something is wrong.

"They've been less abundant the past 10 years," says Tuktoyaktuk hunter Elvis Raddi, 49. "In those days you had your pick of bears."

A US geological survey study in 2007 concluded the projected decline in sea ice would mean the loss of two-thirds of the world's polar bear population by the mid-21st century.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service consequently declared the bear a "threatened" species in May 2008.

The import ban followed, and US hunters' groups and native Canadian organizations joined in lawsuits to overturn the decisions.

The cases, consolidated in US District Court in Washington, with rulings expected next year, hinge on technical issues. But Doug Burdin, counsel for the plaintiff hunters' group Safari Club International, summed up a general argument as well.

"Our position is you need a high level of certainty about conditions 45 years in the future before you can make an Endangered Species Act finding," he says. "That certainty is nowhere close to where it needs to be."

Bear experts dismiss such arguments. "It's not rocket science," Born says. "An animal population losing its home rapidly means to me they will be in bad shape."

Veteran hunter Frank Pokiak, 57, chairman of the Inuvialuit Game Council, says his group joined in the US lawsuits because they believe hunting is well managed in Canada, and sport hunting is economically important in Tuktoyaktuk and in coastal villages even smaller than this settlement of 800.

But Pokiak is prepared for bad news later this year from research in Alaska, which shares the Beaufort Sea bear population with the Canadians.

"As soon as we find out whether there's a decline, the first thing that's going to happen is our quotas will probably be revisited, and the quotas will probably drop," he says. "And we've made the communities aware that this may happen."

Wildlife activists say the Canadian government should develop more jobs for Inuit hurt economically by hunting controls.

Old-timers recall when hunters would drive dog teams along solid ice until the end of June.

But like little Henry Nasogaluak Jr., babies born in this small village are likely to live in a very different Arctic next century, no matter what happens in courtrooms and government deliberations in Washington.


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