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By Nathalie Peron
The polar bear: emblem of the Great White North and symbol of the detrimental effects of climate change. While the bears are more readily associated with northern Manitoba, which sees more than 10,000 “polar bear tourists” visit every year, and the Northwest Territories, where they are a territorial symbol immortalized on licence plates, northern Québec has its own population of the arctic predators.
How are the bears really faring?
Guillaume Szor, managing biologist for the Nord-du-Québec region with the provincial Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks, recently conducted a survey of polar bear populations in the region to answer that question.
Far northern Québec is home to three polar bear subpopulations, known as the Southern Hudson Bay, Foxe Basin and Davis Strait groups. Szor explains that these subpopulations have been regularly inventoried, about every ten years, since the 1960s. More recently, scientists have focused on the Southern Hudson Bay bears, which occupy the territory stretching along the coast of James Bay, up along the coast of Hudson Bay to the northernmost tip of the province. Surveys were conducted there in 2012 and in September of this year. Szor says scientists’ increased interest in the bear population stems from detected changes in the climate and from an increase in the number of bears killed by hunters in the region in 2011.
The 2012 survey report, prepared by researchers from Québec’s Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks, Ontario’s ministry of natural resources and the U.S. Geological Survey, states that although the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation (neighbours to the Southern Hudson Bay bears) showed a 22 per cent population decrease between the mid-1980s and the mid-2000s with no noticeable increase since, the Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation has had more luck, with increased numbers from the 1960s to the 1980s and relative stability since then. Although scientists noted that the bears were in worse physical condition across all sex and age groupings, there were no changes to bear numbers.
Concerns over the abundance of the Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation also arise from hunting practices in Canada, the only country that allows polar bear hunting for sport, a fact that has provoked international interest in the country’s wildlife management practices.
Québec is the only province without enforced polar bear hunting quotas. Considering that Inuit communities from Ontario and Nunavut also hunt (with quotas) from the same subpopulation, a voluntary quota was agreed upon in Québec after the 2011 increase in the number of hunted bears.
“In order to continue with international trade, we must prove that the species is properly managed and that such commerce does not endanger the species,” Szor explains. “To date, the management system for polar bears in Canada has not endangered the species… but the fact that Québec did not have any [hunting] quotas [brought about] a lot of pressure from the international community.”
The voluntary quota is expected to give rise to a formal declarative agreement, Szor explains. In the meantime, numbers of harvested bears in the region have returned to normal, perhaps below normal, levels.
Results are not available yet for the latest survey, completed in September. Szor says preliminary results tend to show that for Québec, there’s no cause for alarm. “It seems similar to what we saw four years ago.”
For Szor, climate change is “a topic that is greatly debated and is so large.”
“We’ve spoken with many Inuit and they see many things: the ice breaking and ice melting patterns seem to have changed. Traditional ice road lanes melt more quickly, some of them aren’t as solid as they were, and precipitation isn’t the same. In terms of the effect on polar bear populations, it isn’t so clear.
Research seems to show that bear populations to the west and south are starting to experience some difficulties; we see less-fattened females. [But] the majority of the polar bear population seems to be well.”
According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, of the 13 polar bear subpopulations in Canada, six, including the three Québec subpopulations are listed as “likely stable/stable,” two are listed as “likely increase” and two are listed as “likely decline.”
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