Bowdoin Expertise on the Plight of the Polar Bear

Story posted May 15, 2008

Put at risk by global warming, Bowdoin's mascot, the Polar Bear, was put under the protective umbrella of the Endangered Species Act by U.S. Department of the Interior on Wednesday, May 14, 2008. Read the U.S Department of the Interior news release here.

While the U.S. measure only affects Polar Bears in Alaska, the only state in which the species is found, repercussions will be felt all across the region.

Susan Kaplan, director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center, says this will create great hardship for some Inuit, the indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Alaska, Greenland and Canada, for whom hunting Polar Bears is of economic importance.

Big game hunting is an important, regulated business with strict quotas in northern Canada. Inuit hunting guides collect fees ranging from $20,000 to $40,000 from Polar Bear hunters, many of whom come from the U.S.

"That whole activity, in all likelihood, will dry up," says Kaplan. "The impact isn't simply on the guide. A certain amount of the money generated by such hunts is distributed among groups of Inuit hunters in a settlement. There's going to be a wide economic impact in a number of Inuit communities, because this threatened status in the United States is prohibiting Polar Bear skins from being exported across the border from Canada."

History repeating itself

Kaplan says one of the problems has been that environmental activist groups vary in how sensitive they are to indigenous people and the effects of some of their activism on those individuals and their lifestyles.

"The Inuit have felt the effect of this repeatedly. In the 1970s it became politically incorrect to hunt white coat seals. As a result of that and a lot of environmental action, the whole market for seal pelts — the adult seal pelts — completely dried up. That had been an economic mainstay of many Inuit communities. So while the environmental groups felt that they had won a battle, they were oblivious to the economic devastation that this wrought on the Inuit people," she says.

"In a sense, I would imagine that the Inuit are feeling that history is repeating itself."

One answer may be co-management, where Inuit who are out on the land and best know the numbers, behaviors and the haunts of Polar Bears work alongside scientists who bring their own perspective.

"Areas where co-management has been implemented have seen really healthy results," says Kaplan. "There is a sustainable hunt that takes place, but it's very carefully monitored and the two groups agree on what kinds of quotas get set."

Click here for Inuit perspectives on this ruling.

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