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Where are the bears?

Kent Driscoll
Northern News Services

Rankin Inlet (Jan 18/06) - By the end of the month, the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board (NWMB) will have a better idea how many polar bears there are on the western side of Hudson's Bay.

NNSL Photo/graphic

Hunters say that there are more bears in the Kivalliq region than before. Their knowledge is being combined with scientific data for the Western Hudson polar bear consultations. That report is expected at the end of January. - NNSL file photo

That's when the Western Hudson Polar Bear Consultations will be tabled by the Canadian Wildlife Service. The study takes in the thoughts of hunters along with scientific data.

"It will give the board a good indication as to how harvesters feel about status of polar bears," said Joe Tigullaraq, the chair and CEO of the NWMB.

He is concerned about the results. "More time could have been spent with the harvesters. I think that time is our enemy," said Tigullaraq.

The study will take scientific data and combine it with the knowledge of hunters.

Gabriel Nirlungayuk is the director of wildlife for NTI, and it was his job to gather the hunters and find out what they think.

"We had over 200 years of experience in the room and they had a lot to say," said Nirlungayuk.

He spent Aug. 8 and 9 with a group of five hunters from the Kivalliq region, and the hunters have a theory.

In Arviat, Whale Cove and Rankin Inlet, the hunters reported few polar bear sightings from the 1930's to the 1970's. Sightings went up dramatically starting in the 1980's.

"In Chesterfield Inlet, from the 1930's and 40's they noticed very few bears. One hunter said they were lucky to get five in a year, even though they had no quotas," said Nirlungayuk.

The population took the same jump in the 1980's as the other regions, according to the hunters. Nirlungayuk has drawn a conclusion.

In 1964 the American and Canadian military moved out of Churchill, Manitoba. The community went from a large population to a small one.

Polar bears are fond of the dump in Churchill, one man's garbage is a polar bears' feast. With fewer people comes less garbage, and the bears had to move to find food.

"If I was a bear, and if I didn't have to hunt, I'd stick around too," said Nirlungayuk. "This may have changed the behaviour of the polar bears in that area. What the hunters are thinking is with less garbage, they had to go back to their old hunting grounds," said Nirlungayuk.

Their old hunting grounds are in the Kivalliq region. The hunters think that the population in Kivalliq can handle a quota increase because of that migration.

Calls to the Canadian Wildlife Service were returned, but the scientists in charge of the study were not available prior to press time.

"These hunters want to work with those scientists, but they are concerned. When someone makes conclusions on only a few months study, the bears may have shifted. To come up with numbers, you have to live here," said Nirlungayuk.

He holds out hope that the scientific community will try to learn from the hunters. "I think this is a first step at documenting Inuit knowledge. I'm hoping a good scientist would try to prove this knowledge," said Nirlungayuk.

The hunters Nirlungayuk talked to are Simon Kowmuk and Joe Kaludjak from Rankin Inlet, Johnny Karetak from Arviat, Ollie Ittinuar of Rankin Inlet and Chesterfield Inlet and Louis Voisey of Whale Cove.