In villages across the Arctic, Inuit are reporting an invasion. Polar bears, once rare, are now strolling the streets, peeking in windows, killing dogs – even stalking kids. No place has been more menaced than Arviat. By Jake MacDonald
When Darryl Baker was growing up in Arviat, he didn’t know much about polar bears. “You could go all summer up and down the Hudson Bay coast in a boat and never see one. When the elders camped out, they would tie out a dog to warn them if a bear was coming. But us young guys didn’t bother with that, because we never saw bears.”
He recalls that he didn’t know much about anything else, either. His father was a white man who took off and left him to be raised by his Inuit mother and various Inuit uncles and grandfathers. “I wanted to be a hunter and trapper like them, but I was very stupid and I nearly died, many times. I would swamp the boat at sea, or get whited out, or get lost on the tundra. I bought a GPS, thinking I could go anywhere now. But the elders just smiled. ‘Will that little thing teach you where the thin ice is?’”
The first time Darryl Baker saw a polar bear, he was on his snowmachine, checking his fox traps. A snowdrift alongside the trail reared up and became a large polar bear. “I took off out of there,” he said. “But it was very scary because my snowmachine wasn’t running good and I was afraid I was going to have to walk back to town with that polar bear on my trail.”
He wanted to emulate his Inuit mentors, so he got himself some sled dogs. But he says polar bears are a constant problem for dog mushers. “There’s lots of polar bears now. They come right into town, and they hate dogs. A couple of years ago my neighbour phoned me one morning and said, ‘there’s a big polar bear coming down the street and he looks like he’s in a bad mood.’ The bear was heading right for my dogs. I opened the kitchen window and fired a shot to scare it off but it ignored me and killed one of my dogs with one slap. So I shot the bear.”
The CBC interviewed him, and qallunaat – white people – criticized him on the web site. “People were saying a polar bear is more valuable than a sled dog. Well, I work hard and I spend a lot of money on my dogs. A good dog is worth from two thousand to five thousand dollars. They said you should put your dogs in a ‘safe location.’ We don’t have safe locations. The bears walk right into the hamlet. Am I supposed to just stand there and watch when a bear starts killing my dogs?”
Conflicts with polar bears are becoming a problem across Nunavut, and Arviat is one of the hotspots. Arviat (which translates as “place of the bowhead whale”) is the southernmost community in mainland Nunavut, and one of the most traditional. Its population is about 90 per cent Inuit, and Inuktitut is the primary language. Groceries are expensive and “country food,” like caribou and fish, is the main source of protein. Many Inuit hunters and trappers are strengthening their cultural heritage by keeping dog teams, but in Arviat and other communities across the Arctic, bears make it difficult to be a dog owner. “And it’s not just dogs you have to worry about,” says Kukik Baker, Darryl’s wife. “Kids are in danger too. We’re afraid to let them walk home from school, or even play outside.”
Bear season along the coast of Hudson Bay normally stretches from late summer until freeze-up in November, when polar bears head out onto the ice to hunt seals. But in Arviat and other coastal communities, those seasonal patterns no longer dictate when a bear might show up in the yard. One day last March, Kukik and her 10-year-old daughter Natalie went to visit Kukik’s father, who lives just down the street. Natalie went outside and played on a snowbank with a friend. Shortly afterwards Darryl got a frantic phone call from a neighbour, who had spotted a polar bear stalking the kids. “It was creeping up on them like a cat sneaking up on some birds,” he says. “The kids screamed and ran into the house. I rushed over there. My father-in-law had already shot the bear, but it was wounded, so I shot it again and finished it off.”
Polar bears have gone after other people in Arviat, and numerous dogs have been killed. Local artist Mary Tutsuituk says she lives in fear from the end of August until the end of November. “I don’t know what to do,” she says. “A few days ago, a bear was slamming his paws on the wall of my house and looking in my daughter’s bedroom window! We just have a little house and it would be easy to break the door. What would he do if he came in? I’m exhausted all the time because I’m too afraid to sleep.”
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After years of debate about climate change, just about everyone accepts that the “theory” of global warming is now a fact – Arctic winters are becoming shorter, and on average, freeze-up occurs weeks later than it did only four of five decades ago. satellite images show that Arctic summer sea ice has diminished by roughly 30 per cent since 1979. It’s also a well-accepted fact that polar bears are heavily dependent on seals for their diet, and many bear scientists argue that shorter winters are stressing polar bears by reducing their prime food-gathering season. Some scientists argue that bears in the western Hudson bay population (the southernmost of the world’s 19 populations of polar bears) face the most immediate threat. In 2004, Environment Canada researchers predicted that by 2011, that population would decline to about 610 animals. Prominent polar bear scientist Dr. Andy Derocher, of the University of Alberta, believes that population is “teetering on collapse,” and other scientists have predicted that polar bears across the Arctic could be extinct by the end of the century.
Scientists are well aware that these predictions fly in the face of Inuit assertions that bears are, if anything, getting more numerous. In private, many scientists dismiss those views as folklore, and some environmentalists suspect the motives of the Inuit because they can sell bear hunts to wealthy foreign hunters for up to $40,000 apiece. (The community of Arviat has voted to keep its annual quota of nine bears for local Inuit hunters.) Some bear scientists also suggest that the “perceived increase” of polar bears is actually caused by stressed, hungry bears wandering into communities. As Professor Derocher puts it, “some of these bears we think have been pushed off the ice early, away from their primary prey, so they get desperate.” Inuit hunter Darryl Baker scoffs at this contention. “Most of the bears coming into Arviat are fat and healthy. I skinned the bear that stalked my daughter last spring, and it had lots of fat on it.”
In 2012, the Nunavut government conducted a long-awaited census of western Hudson Bay polar bears and came up with 1,013 animals, or about twice as many as the number projected by environment Canada. Dr. Mitch Taylor, a lifelong polar bear scientist who, at times, has been ostracized by his peers for insisting that polar bear populations are generally stable, took some satisfaction from the results. “The Inuit were right. There aren’t just a few more bears. There are a hell of a lot more bears.”
The study, however, was cold comfort to the people of Arviat. Scientists might continue to squabble about survey results, but the Arviarmiut are certain they’re having far more bear encounters than ever before, and no one seems to know what to do about it.
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As a small boy, Alex Ishalook studied animals under the tutelage of his father and grandfather, and at the age of five he bagged his first caribou with a single-shot .22 that he still owns. He believes there are far more bears around Arviat than ever before, and says the seacoast south to Churchill, Manitoba is now unsafe for camping. “It’s too dangerous, much too dangerous. There are bears everywhere. We used to camp at Sentry Island, for example, and we never saw bears. Now there are from three to five bears there, all the time.”
He is the head of the local Hunters and Trappers Organization, and says there would be fewer bear problems if Inuit hunters were allowed to legally harvest more bears. “A larger hunting quota would be a good idea for many reasons. The bears are overpopulated and are causing many conflicts. Our people have been hunting animals, respectfully, for thousands of years and we can be trusted not to over-hunt the bears. And hunting teaches bears to fear people and avoid people.”
Arviat hands out its allotment of polar bear tags every year around Halloween. About 1,200 applicants (just about everyone in the community older than 16) gather at the assembly hall to observe the drawing of the lucky names. The winner must kill a bear within 48 hours or the tag goes to someone else. If defense kills have been registered during the year, those bears are subtracted from Arviat's annual nine-bear quota.
In 2010, there was no hunt because all nine tags were used on defence kills. In 2011, two bears were killed in defense and seven tags were drawn. Part of the credit for improving numbers might go to recent preventive programs. Two years ago, the World Wildlife Fund (with the backing of Coca-Cola) contributed money to provide Arviat with bear-proof steel containers for storing meat and dog food and electric fences to protect chained-up sled dogs. Alex Ishalook says the fences aren't a perfect solution to the age-old grudge between bears and canines, but they help. "We're still losing a few dogs. Sometimes the snow drifts up into the wires and short-circuits the fence. And if a bear wants to go through the fence, he's going through. But they work better than no fence at all."
Over the last two years, the World Wildlife Fund has also helped the community pay the salary of a bear monitor, who works for three months a year, starting at the beginning of October. He drives constantly around the edge of the hamlet on a Honda ATV, looking for bears and offering a ride home to anyone who might be out walking alone. "My job is to keep people safe," says Leo Ikakhik. "I work from midnight to eight in the morning, and when I see a bear I chase it out of town."
He says there are far more bears in the region than when he was growing up and camping out on the land with his father. “The population has increased, big time,” he says. “And I don’t agree that we’re just seeing more desperate bears. Like any animal, they’ll take food if they find it. But all these bears would be coming through town anyway. They don’t have much choice because they built the town on the coastline and we’re living on their natural highway. They’re migrating from south to north, so I usually try to chase them out the north end of town, so they won’t circle around and come back.”
On a busy night he might get half a dozen bears coming into the hamlet. He keeps a nightly logbook and says that over a season he’ll deal with well over 200 bears. He says herding polar bears is not easy. “Polar bears are all different. Some of them are afraid of people and some are not. As a first step I will rev up the quad and drive towards it. If that doesn’t scare the bear, I will fire a cracker shell. That’s a cartridge you shoot from a 12-gauge shotgun. It goes through the air and makes a loud bang. I use a lot of cracker shells, maybe 250 per season. If the cracker shell doesn’t work I will fire a 12-gauge rubber bullet and hit the bear in the rump. If there’s a life-threatening emergency I also carry a rifle, but so far I haven’t had to put a bear down.”
He’s had a few close calls. One night during a snowstorm, multiple bears started appearing out of the blowing snow. “There were three or four bears on the west side of town and three or four bears on the east side. I was speeding back and forth, trying to handle them all. Then I heard some dogs barking like crazy. Dogs have a special bark when they see a polar bear, so I was looking for it. Then this skinny bear appeared in the headlights about 30 steps away. I shot it with a rubber bullet and it started jogging towards me. Skinny bears are dangerous. They’re not afraid of anything. I tried to get away but my ATV got stuck in the soft snow. My rifle was on a sling on my back and I didn’t have time to get it. When the bear was about 10 feet away I shot it again in the shoulder with a rubber bullet and it turned away.”
Leo Ikakhik says that if a bear has found some food, “it will ignore you no matter what you do.” When nothing else works, he calls for backup from Joe Savikataaq, the local Nunavut Conservation Officer. A calm, well-built individual with the steely confidence of a veteran lawman, Savikataaq has been enforcing the wildlife laws in Arviat for almost 25 years. He checks the hamlet before the kids go to school in the morning, deals with his normal workload during the day (including building and maintaining electric bear fences), and works late into the evening, patrolling the community while people walk home from work and do their shopping. He used to work all night long as well, jumping out of bed whenever someone called him about a prowling bear, but now that Leo Ikakhik works the graveyard shift, Joe only has to put on his boots when Leo runs into a bear that won’t listen to reason. Savikataaq’s ace in the hole is a 38-milimetre riot gun. As Ikakhik puts it, “A bear will always bugger off when Joe hits it on the rump with one of those big rubber slugs.”
During the course of his career in Arviat, Joe Savikataaq says he has chased many polar bears out of the community. (“I can’t say how many. Hundreds and hundreds.”) He believes that it’s important to teach the bears to fear human beings. “We want them to think that people cause pain. We want them to avoid people whenever they can.” With some bears, that lesson seems to be sinking in. Leo Ikakhik has a cabin north of town, and one day he was trapped inside it by a polar bear. “I called my wife on the CB radio and told her I might have to shoot the bear. I asked her to call Joe and tell him what was going on. Joe got on his Honda and came out to help me. As soon as the bear saw Joe coming, it took off. I think some of these bears are learning to be afraid of people on Hondas – or at least they’re learning to be afraid of Joe.”
Alex Ishalook agrees that a timid bear is a safe bear, but he says he’s worried that lobbying efforts by scientists and environmentalists will reduce the polar bear hunt further, or even stop it, at which point the polar bears will lose their fear of people altogether. “Why aren’t these scientists coming to Northern communities and talking to us about bear populations? We’ve never had a single visit from them in Arviat. They don’t seem to care what we think. I don’t understand it.”
Darryl Baker says the community is a peaceful and law-abiding one. “We were taught to respect the law by our elders, and we’ve always listened to the authorities. But they don’t listen to us. If a polar bear kills one of our children, this community is going to be very angry. Then it will be too late for talking.”