An assessment of the health of Davis Strait polar bears by 35 Inuit polar bear experts was made public two weeks ago. Overall, these experts agree that virtually all polar bears they see are healthy and that the population has been growing over the past few decades, so much so that “public safety has become an increasing concern”. Mainstream media have ignored this report, as far as I have seen.
As we await the latest scientific population estimate of Davis Strait polar bears, completed in 2021 but still not publicly available (only a preliminary gov’t report and a summary graphic from the final report have been released, see Dyck et al. 2019, 2021) this new document (Tomaselli et al. 2022) provides the essential information we need. Polar bears are doing well with no notable changes in cub numbers or survival in the last few decades, abundance is up and reflects a real increase in numbers. There are so many polar bears that communities and individuals feel the need to take extra precautions in protecting themselves from bears.
Oh, and ringed seal numbers are way down: that could be a critical bit of information we won’t get from the polar bear academics.
Davis Strait Study Area
The Inuit experts live primarily in the northern half of Davis Strait on Baffin Island, across from Greenland:
According to these Inuit experts, the polar bears they see as they move and hunt around their landscape are almost always in good or very good condition and that hasn’t changed much over the last three decades or so; slightly more bears they see are ‘very fat’ (about 4%) than are ‘very skinny’ (about 1%):
Inuit experts were also asked about relative numbers of polar bears and other species in 2019 compared to each decade since the 1950s. To me, this is extremely interesting and potentially critically important.
They report bearded seal numbers have been unchanged over time, harp seal and polar bear numbers have steadily increased from very low abundance in the mid-20th century but that ringed seals, which used to be very abundant, have steadily declined.
Regarding the ringed seal decline:
Contributors from Pangnirtung and Kimmirut offered various explanations as to why they thought ringed seals had declined in recent decades around their community, including: increase in polar bear predation (especially around ringed seals denning areas during the pupping season); increase in local community harvest; ringed seal emigration into other areas (either following preys or due to displacement by other species); increase in maritime transport; lack of sea ice; warmer ocean waters; increase in fox predation; and changing winds…
Despite the observed decline in ringed seal abundance and reported changes in seal health, contributors generally indicated that polar bears have broad diets and that they can adapt to changes in prey availability. Many noted that they were not concerned about polar bear persistence related to ringed seal availability. However, it was also acknowledged that if ringed seals –the main resource polar bears rely on throughout the year– remain scarce, polar bears could move to areas where ringed seals and other suitable preys are more abundant.
Regarding concerns for public safety
It’s not just about potential attacks but about damage caused by bears:
Several contributors from both communities indicated that polar bears nowadays tend to be less fearful and more aggressive towards humans than they were in the past, and reported increased damage to cabins, food caches and property caused by polar bears.
Importantly, all individual interview contributors (n=27) highlighted their concern for public safety resulting from increased human-polar bear encounters and more frequent bear aggressions. Many shared the view that polar bears posed a greater public safety concern today compared to the past and pointed to increasing risks of conflicts between humans and polar bears. Polar bears killed in defense of life and property were described as a recent phenomenon around both Pangnirtung and Kimmirut.
Download the entire report here.
Dyck, M et al. 2019. ‘Re-estimating the abundance of the Davis Strait polar bear subpopulation by genetic mark-recapture. Final Report to Nunavut Wildlife Management Board.
Dyck, M et al. 2021. ‘Re-estimating the abundance of the Davis Strait polar bear subpopulation by genetic mark-recapture. Final Report.‘ provided to the author of an essay for The Conversation but not publicly available; summary results graphic provided below.
Tomaselli, M., Henri, D.A., Pangnirtung Hunters and Trappers Organization, Mayukalik Hunters and Trappers Organization, Akavak, N., Kanayuk, D., Kanayuk, R., Pitsiulak, P., Wong, P., Richardson, E.S., and Dyck, M. 2022. Nunavut Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit on the health of the Davis Strait polar bear population. Final project report. Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Department of Environment of the Government of Nunavut.