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More polar bear than estimated in 2004
Western Hudson Bay survey cites 1,013 animals; biologist says single aerial study doesn't establish health of population

Jeanne Gagnon
Northern News Services
Published Monday, April 9, 2012

An aerial survey estimated the Western Hudson Bay polar bear sub-population at 1,013 animals, higher than other predictions stemming from the past eight years.

NNSL photo/graphic

The majority of polar bears seen during the survey were in the Manitoba and Ontario portion of the Hudson Bay, where the animal distribution resembled previous studies. - NNSL file photo

The territorial government released the summary report, on March 20, of an aerial survey undertaken from Aug. 13 to 29, 2011 - a period when bears are largely confined to land.

During the survey period, 31 polar bears were seen in the Nunavut portion of the survey area, with the distribution "very similar" to the ones recorded by the territorial government in 2007 and 2010.

"The density of bears in Nunavut was relatively low in comparison to other parts of WH (Western Hudson Bay)," stated the summary report. "Most bears were concentrated along the coast and islands, in particular the area south of Arviat."

It adds the majority of polar bears seen during the survey were in the Manitoba and Ontario portion of the Hudson Bay, where the animal distribution resembled previous studies. Tagging studies done in Manitoba in 2004 estimated the Western Hudson Bay polar bear population at 934. The report states results of the tagging studies, along with harvesting information from 2004 to 2011, predicted the sub-population would decline to about 650 bears by 2011.

Stephen Atkinson, polar bear biologist with the GN, said it is hard to compare the tagging and aerial survey estimates.

"It's hard to compare them. They are not directly comparable at the moment. Because the aerial survey was the first time we've ever done one, we don't have another previous aerial survey to compare it to," he said. "So, it's hard to say whether the population has truly gone down or whether it has remained stable. At this point, we can't really say that. We can indicate our estimate is approximately 1,013."

A new tagging estimate will be available later this year, states the report.

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. vice-president James Eetoolook said the survey results show the polar bear population to be "healthy and abundant."

"For many years, Inuit asked the territorial government to conduct summer range aerial surveys. Finally, in 2011, that aerial survey was conducted and as Inuit knew, the population was found to be healthy and abundant," he said in a press release. "This is excellent news. Inuit said polar bears are not declining in number."

What one calls abundant and healthy, however, is hard to define, said Atkinson, noting some 1,000 polar bears is lower than historical numbers. As well, of the findings, there were only 50 cubs less than a year old, and 22 yearlings - the report adds that average litter sizes were the lowest recorded in recent years, signaling a low reproductive output for 2011.

"The findings of the study, at this point - it's really, we have an abundance estimate that approximates how many bears there are," he said. "A single aerial survey doesn't give you a comprehensive picture of population health because what you actually have is a number. We don't have a trend."

To establish a trend, more surveys need to be done, he added.

Ross Tatty, the chairman of the Kivalliq Wildlife Board, said he is not surprised by the survey results as the hunters in his region always knew there were more polar bears.

"In Arviat, every fall, you've got to have a bear watch because of the polar bears," he said. "It's not safe for the people living there because of the amount of polar bears living there now."

Tatty also said the communities want more quota.

"We're going to request more quotas now that we know there are more polar bears," he said.

The Government of Nunavut increased the quota for the 2011-12 harvest season to 21 polar bears from eight for the Western Hudson Bay population last October, which sparked outrage from U.S. conservation group The Center for Biological Diversity.

The increase was the first in three years. The previous quota of eight was set in 2008. The Department of Environment recommended to increase the quota following consultations with the affected communities and the Kivalliq Regional Wildlife Organization.

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