Biologists escalate conflict over Inuit management of polar bear populations

Yesterday, two polar bear specialists and an inept freelance journalist poured gasoline on the already-volatile issue of polar bear management in Nunavut.

Quote of the day: “I think there’s a reasonable chance that the last polar bear in Canada will be shot by an Inuk hunter.” [Andrew Derocher, University of Alberta]

Polar bear Aug 2017 near area where June 19 2018 bear was spotted Gordy Kidlapik

You have to read it to believe how bad the Yale Environment 360 article by Gloria Dickie (19 December 2018) really is: “As polar bear attacks increase in the Arctic, a search for solutions.” [reprinted 26 December at PBS] The title suggests a balanced treatment of the issue but the reality is far from that: gross inaccuracies in the descriptions of the two fatal attacks that took place this summer that can only be explained by sloppy research and what struck me as unbelievably nasty and racist commentary by polar bear specialist Andrew Derocher. But decide for yourself.


In July, a subadult male polar bear attacked and killed a man who was berry picking with his children on Sentry Island, six miles outside the Inuit community of Arviat, Nunavut. Arviat, 150 miles north of Churchill on the edge of Hudson Bay, sits along the same polar bear migration route as Churchill. Then, at the end of August, a mother polar bear in Nunavut’s Foxe Basin attacked and killed an Inuit hunter, and injured two others, after they got between her and her cubs — the first known fatal attack by a mother polar bear.

In response, Inuit communities in Nunavut have called on the government to allow a higher legal polar bear harvest quota, arguing bear populations have increased to dangerous levels and should be reduced through hunting. Scientists counter that polar bear populations are declining, not increasing. The bears are simply spending more time on land in the absence of sea ice. Any increase in hunting, they say, could speed along the bear’s climate-caused demise.

Except, regarding the Arviat attack in July, Aaron Gibbons and his family were collecting bird eggs, not picking berries, and reports from those who saw the dead bear say it was a lean adult male (at least 9 feet long), not a subadult animal.

And the description of the August attack makes it sound like the Inuk hunters brought the attack on themselves by behaving inappropriately (by getting between a mother and cubs). But all  of the accounts given by the two survivors of that attack tell a quite different story, including the fact that only one cub was present. They say they were having early morning tea outside their tents when the mother bear approached the camp and was undeterred by a warning shot. A report published a few days after the rescue suggests there was some confusion in the earlier reports and that in all, 4 bears (not 5) were killed: the female and her one cub plus two others attracted to the carnage over the following few days.

Because the 360 author does not say where she got her version of the attacks, it sounds very much like she did not talk to anyone involved in the incidents but got inaccurate information third hand. In attacks such as these, details matter. Oddly, her details fit the pattern described in a paper by James Wilder and colleagues summarizing polar bear attacks (Wilder et al. 2017): that attacks from polar bears come primarily from subadult males and that females with cubs attack only when their cubs are threatened.

The fact that such generalities do not fit the details of the two attacks that happened this summer should be a matter of grave concern. Instead, the details of what actually happened seem to have been misrepresented to fit the narrative of what usually happens.

As I’ve noted before, both fatal polar bear attacks occurred outside of communities (away from areas where human attractants could have been an issue) and both happened early in the onshore period before the bears had spent much time on land. The bear involved in the July attack on Aaron Gibbons was described as thin (but not skinny) and all of the bears involved in the August attack were described as being in good condition.

Sea ice in Foxe Basin, where the August attack occurred, had been high all summer: in fact, the hunters had been trapped by ice in a location they had not expected to go ashore and their rescue was delayed because an icebreaker had to be brought in to reach the camp. In other words, lack of sea ice was not an issue.

As for Derocher, he is quoted as saying:

“The harvest is not sustainable here [in Western Hudson Bay],” he says. “I think there’s a reasonable chance that the last polar bear in Canada will be shot by an Inuk hunter.”

Wow. It’s difficult to imagine a more insensitive, derogatory remark about the native people of Canada’s north.

I do not expect this is going to go over well with the Nunavut community. While the proximity of Christmas may prevent an immediate response, the insult will be noted.


Wilder, J.M., Vongraven, D., Atwood, T., Hansen, B., Jessen, A., Kochnev, A., York, G., Vallender, R., Hedman, D. and Gibbons, M. 2017. Polar bear attacks on humans: implications of a changing climate. Wildlife Society Bulletin 41:537-547. DOI: 10.1002/wsb.783

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