Polar Bears at Center of Climate Change Debate

Henry Jr. slept in the arms of his father the unhappy hunter, who pondered the future of the boy born last Arctic winter, in the depths of 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 said 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 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 this remote Canadian coast, from the familiar frozen vastness of their northern sea to the confines of a Washington, D.C., courtroom, where they're contesting a U.S. ban on imports of polar-bearskin rugs.

That 2008 ban has wrecked an estimated $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 $20,000 to $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 $40,000 a year.

"It's just like I got fired out of my job. No compensation, no nothing," he told a visitor to his small wood-frame home in this seaside hamlet. "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 U.S. 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 Web site offers "Worldwide Shipping!" for 7-foot and 8-foot polar-bearskin rugs priced at $7,995 and $8,995.

The fearsome white bear, the world's largest land meat-eater, "nanuq" to the Inuit, 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 U.S. 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," Marsha Branigan, a wildlife specialist with the Northwest Territories government, said in an interview in the Inuvialuit regional center of Inuvik.

This July, however, a global authority reached some conclusions about the species, believed to number 20,000 to 25,000 around the north, through Alaska, the Eurasian Arctic, Greenland and, mostly, northernmost Canada.

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. Too little was known about seven other subgroups to make a judgment, it said.

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.

Here on the flat tundra coastline of far northwest Canada, the hunters are less skeptical of the experts. The Inuvialuit sense something's gone wrong with their subpopulation, the Southern Beaufort Sea bear.

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

Only 14 bears were taken in the last December-to-May hunting season here, out of a local quota of 40, Branigan said. Half the quota is allotted to sport hunters. The unused tags are then added to the half reserved for "subsistence" hunting by Inuit, who prize the skins for making traditional winter clothing or for selling whole to middlemen.

A U.S. 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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service consequently declared the bear a "threatened" species in May 2008.

The import ban followed, and U.S. hunters' groups and native Canadian organizations — including the Inuvialuit Game Council — joined in lawsuits to overturn the decisions.

The cases, consolidated in U.S. 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 said. "That certainty is nowhere close to where it needs to be."

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

Born, of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, also labels as "nonsense" the contention of some that global polar bear numbers have grown impressively in recent decades. Historical data don't exist to make that comparison, he said.

Leading Canadian field researcher Andrew Derocher said some regional populations may be holding steady, but he agreed the long-term outlook is key.

"People get all concerned that people still hunt the polar bear," said the University of Alberta biologist. "My feeling is that's fine as long as that's sustainable, and in many populations it is a sustainable harvest. The problem is looking on to the future."

Already, in their scattered studies, researchers find bears thinner, hungrier, having fewer cubs.

Veteran hunter Frank Pokiak, 57, chairman of the Inuvialuit Game Council, said his group joined in the U.S. 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 said. "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. But the hunt for nanuq means more than money; it's also the currency of manhood in this old Eskimo culture.

To the Inuit, the wily, dangerous bear is the animal closest to man, both quarry and kin. Their lore is full of tales of talking bears, flying bears, magical bears. Over meals of whale meat and beer, they tell real-life stories, too.

"One time my grandfather, he shot a bear out his kitchen window — after he shot his washer-dryer," Tuktoyaktuk's Gus Gruben recounted. "He got excited, eh? And he shot his washer-dryer and shot his couch, and he finally shot the bear." He grinned. "It's a good story."

Down the hamlet's dirt roads, past fox pelts and fish hung drying in the sun, Gruben's other grandfather sat this summer afternoon in his daughter's home, among mementos of an early life pursuing nanuq through the dim light of polar springs past, when the ice was strong.

"Thirty, 40 years ago in June it was still solid ice, you could still drive dog teams," recalled Eddie Gruben, Tuktoyaktuk's 89-year-old patriarch. "We'd still go hunting. We'd still drive dog teams right to the end of June. Now you can't go."

Like little Henry Nasogaluak Jr., Eddie Gruben's 103 grandchildren and great-grandchildren will likely live in a very different Arctic in the 21st century, no matter what happens in courtrooms and government councils down south.

"The ice is melting," the old man said. He worried about his old foe, the white bear.

"I'm always wondering, `What the hell they going to do if there's no more ice in the Arctic?"'