According to scientists, three of Canada’s 13 bear sub-populations are in decline. However, a new Nunavut government bear management plan cites Inuit communities that contradict this: they say none of the bear populations are shrinking, while nine are increasing.
On the afternoon of July 3, Aaron Gibbons, a hunter from the Inuit hamlet of Arviat on the north-west shore of Hudson Bay, took his three children on a boat trip.
Gibbons, 31, had a well-paid job at Meadowbank, a gold mine deep in the Arctic tundra, which took him away for weeks at a time.
But when he was home, he loved to deploy the inherited skills of his ancestors.
‘He was an experienced provider of country food for his family,’ says his uncle, Gordy Kidlapik, 60, a hunting veteran. ‘His father had brought him up that way, and he was good at it.’
Aaron and his children were headed for Sentry Island – seven miles across the bay from Arviat – a popular spot for picnics, hunting and fishing, where they planned to harvest some of its abundant supply of Arctic tern eggs.
In dappled summer sunshine, the island is idyllic – a place of rugged moorland, shingly beaches, and brilliant green shrubs.
Unfortunately, polar bears like tern eggs, too, and the family hadn’t been there long when Gibbons realised that a mature male, 9ft in length from jaws to rump, was stalking them.
He yelled at the children to get back in the boat, and as they scrambled to escape, he stood his ground on the beach. For reasons that remain unknown, he was without his rifle.
The bear pounced, and while his 12-year-old daughter desperately radioed for help, Aaron was mauled to death.
His friend William Tiktaq, 32, told me: ‘That evening, I was in the party that recovered his body. I put a tarp on top of him in the boat, so the salt water wouldn’t get to him. He was badly mauled. There were bites everywhere. It’s not a sight you want to see.’
Six months later Aaron’s death, the first fatal attack by a polar bear in the Hudson Bay area for 19 years, is still a raw and emotional wound, described with sadness and horror by everyone I met.
Its impact was intensified by a second mauling in August, when a mother bear and a cub attacked a group of three Inuit hunters near Naujaat, 500 miles to the north, killing Darryl Kaunak.
‘These deaths have been a blow to the whole community – all of us are in shock,’ Evelyn Qasuk, 43, a mother of four children, told me. ‘It makes me nervous about my kids walking around outside the house.
Everyone says there are more polar bears, and they’re not scared of us. Ten years ago, they’d run when they saw a human. Now they’re no longer shy. They keep on coming.’
Part of a chain of coastal settlements in Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost territory,
Arviat, population 2,800, is a snowy huddle of low, well-insulated buildings and very remote. The nearest road connected to the rest of Canada is at Winnipeg, 800 miles away.
For six days before my arrival, blizzards and ice on the runways had forced the Arctic carrier Calm Air to cancel its Arviat flights.
Last week, Arviat’s minimum temperature hit minus 36C. However, as I rapidly discovered, its people – who are almost all Inuit – are as warm as its weather is brutal.
They also turned a conventional wisdom on its head, saying that polar bears are not in crisis, nor even in decline: the main problem, according to the people who know them best, is that there are too many of them.
Climate change – cited as the reason for their imminent demise, due to rising temperatures shrinking the ice essential to their survival – may be altering their behaviour, but the Inuit say they are adapting, and remain fat and healthy, and perfectly able to breed. […]
So who is right – the scientists and campaigners or what the Nunavut government calls Inuit ‘TEK’ – traditional ecological knowledge? Despite the bears’ iconic status, it is impossible to give a definitive answer.
Scientists use two main methods to estimate the changing size of polar bear sub-populations: ‘mark and recapture’, which requires bears to be tranquillised and tagged, and aerial surveys. But both have huge margins of error.
According to scientists, three of Canada’s 13 bear sub-populations are in decline, including West Hudson Bay.
However, a new Nunavut government bear management plan cites TEK from Inuit communities that contradict this: they say none of the bear populations are shrinking, while nine are increasing.
Meanwhile, a study published in 2016 revealed past cases where TEK and scientists disagreed about bear sub-populations – and claimed the Inuit were eventually proven right.
Moreover, if the West Hudson bears have declined recently, this may have nothing to do with sea ice. Since 1979, the long-term trend in ice across the Arctic is down.
But in Hudson Bay, a paper by Prof Derocher and others suggests that although the sea is frozen for three weeks less than in the 1980s, this has not got worse since 2001.
Meanwhile, the latest survey of the Chukchi Sea, between Russia and Alaska, where there has been a marked decline in sea ice recently, says it has a stable and healthy sub-population of bears.