Canadian Inuit file court documents stating polar bears are thriving

UPDATE 6 Nov 2019: I have substantially modified this post based on receipt of the actual court documents describing the case, which is much more complicated than it appeared from the news reports quoted. Many thanks to Donna LaFramboise for passing it along! Clarifications in red, incorrect statements crossed out.

The Inuit fight in Canada with the federal government over polar bear conservation status continues. The government, led by Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, reduced polar bear hunting quotas in Southern Hudson Bay only from 28 to 23, based on the results of the 2011-2012 survey. In response, Inuit groups have submitted affidavits in federal court stating that polar bears are thriving. The court dismissed the Inuit challenge even though polar bears in Canada are not considered threatened or vulnerable to extinction, and encouraged the two parties to resolve the dispute outside the court. This arbitrary political decision by the government undermines the scientific assessment done by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and tramples Inuit rights. The dispute was about Inuit treaty rights vs. conservation concerns regarding sustainable harvest levels, not conservation impacts from climate change, and the decision did not resolve the issues of sex-selective harvesting and defense of life kills counting against harvest quotas.

James Bay female and cub_Ontaro Govt

Fat healthy polar bears from Southern Hudson Bay

From the Toronto Sun (4 November 2019): NOT GOING EXTINCT’: Court documents claim Canadian polar bear population is thriving [my bold]

“Inuit have not noticed a significant decline in the health of the polar bears,” the director of wildlife management for the Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board wrote in a court affidavit.

“In fact Nunavik Inuit report that it is rare to see a skinny bear and most bears are observed to be healthy,” the affidavit read.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have used the polar bear population as evidence of the effect of climate change.

However, the affidavit claimed Nunavut residents have seen an “increase in the polar bear population and a particularly notable increase since the 1980s.” The affidavits were submitted in response to hunting quota cuts made by Environment Canada.

Environment Canada cited “conservation concerns” as justification for the cuts. The Inuit challenge was ultimately dismissed.

One hunter was quoted in a Wildlife Board report saying there’s no “shortage” of polar bears and that “they’re (polar bears) not going extinct.”

The Wildlife Board report also claimed, “Many participants were very concerned about perspectives from outside Nunavik that polar bears are endangered elsewhere.”

“All interviews conducted in the Southern Hudson Bay communities shared the view the population grew somewhat from the 1960s until the 1980s, and that a continued increase has been very noticeable since that time,” the report said.

Polar bears aren’t listed as a threatened or endangered species by a federal panel monitoring Canadian wildlife under the Species At Risk Act, Blacklock’s Reporter reports.

A bit more detail was available in the original report filed at Blacklock’s Reporter (4 November 2019, restricted content), my bold:

Affidavits were submitted in an Inuit challenge of Department of Environment cuts to voluntary hunting quotas. The department had claimed hunting in the Southern Hudson Bay “is likely not sustainable and creates conservation concerns”.

Justice Paul Favel dismissed the challenge but recognized “the profound cultural importance of the polar bear hunt is the most important factor for the Inuit, and that this factor should have weighed more heavily in the balance for the Minister,” he wrote.

The Canadian Arctic bear population totals some 15,500 animals, according to the Government of Nunavut. Bears in the Southern Hudson Bay region of Nunavut, Ontario and Québec number about 943.

Inuit management boards since 2011 had set voluntary hunting quotas. Environment Canada in 2015 rejected that year’s quota, prompting the Federal Court challenge.

So, this is part of an on-going dispute that began in 2015.

If this is an accurate summary of the situation it is a travesty of government interference over science – it is not: the court documents (82 pages long) are available online here and in pdf form here.

Biologists at COSEWIC announced in December 2018 that the polar bear is not threatened or endangered but remains a species of “special concern” (i.e. one to watch). I wrote about it here. In other words, COSEWIC biologists again refused to follow the US example of declaring the polar bear ‘threatened’ based on possible future threats predicted by climate change computer models because all the evidence (including Inuit knowledge) shows the bears are currently doing just fine despite recent declines in summer sea ice.

I have also written about the latest population assessment of Southern Hudson Bay polar bears here. A recent decline in numbers in that population was not statistically significant but another test suggested the decline might be real, so the population was deemed to have declined. Note that the decision described in this court decision was based on the results of the 2011-2012 SH survey. It was acknowledged by all parties involved that the situation had changed by 2019 and this impacted the final decision by the judge.

COSEWIC decisions for any one species under review are made up of biologists and wildlife managers from a wide range of related fields: for example, biologists working on mountain goats, belugas, and other mammals (in addition to polar bear specialists) would work together make the final status assessment. This prevents individuals from one specialist field dominating the decision for the species they represent and ensures that the best possible science is applied to all species under consideration.

Hunting quotas are set for individual Inuit districts based on local population health informed by scientific studies and Inuit knowledge. Having a government minister step in and make a decision to reduce hunting quotas across the board (as appears to be the case, if not I will correct) undermines the COSEWIC decision process and tramples Inuit rights for no other reason than to score political points. This was not the case: the decision to reduce quotas was not across the board, it involved only Southern Hudson Bay. However, the documents filed with respect to polar bears thriving referred to the entire Nunavut region as well as SH. The legal dispute was over the Minister’s decision to reduce the SH harvest quota from 28-23 (shared among the aboriginal stakeholder in SH, Inuit and Cree) and a requirement of sex-selective harvest (2 males for every female), with a note added that all bears shot in defense of life or property would count against the limit of 23.

All of the following about Minister McKenna is still true, although not relevant to this case: the “conservation concerns” cited in the news reports above were clearly about sustainable hunting, not climate change impacts. I apologize for the misinterpretation. Minister McKenna (recently re-elected for another four years) was taken in by the infamous National Geographic bogus ‘starving’ polar bear video of 2017 (see below). Even though the connection to climate change was later retracted, McKenna did not remove her tweet nor has she changed her stance. She embraces the notion of a coming climate change apocalypse after 12 years and adopts the alarmist rhetoric used by organizations like Polar Bears International.

On 9 December 2017, McKenna used her official government twitter account to state: “THIS is what climate change looks like. Climate change is real. As are its impacts. Time to stand up for our polar bears and our planet.

Bottom line: Government interference in this matter of animal conservation and traditional Inuit hunting rights puts political objectives over carefully considered science. The dispute between Inuit and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change has not been materially resolved or hampered by this case. Sex-selective harvesting is still an issue for many Inuit (in part because the intent of this rule is to allow the population to grow). In addition, the requirement that defense-of-life-and-property kills should always count against the harvest quota is an issue that is likely to become more contentious as populations of people and bears increase across Nunavut and defense kills are more often required.

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