– by Suzanne Goldenberg
Polar bear populations are a sensitive topic for the Canadian government, which has faced international criticism for its policies on climate change and for allowing limited hunting of bears, mainly by indigenous communities.
The Canadian environment minister provoked outrage last October when she discounted abundant scientific studies of polar bear decline across the Arctic, saying her brother, a hunter, was having no trouble finding bears. Leona Aglukkaq, an Inuk, spoke of a “debate” about the existence of climate change.
“Scientists latch on to the wildlife in the north to state their case that climate change is happening and the polar bears will disappear and whatnot,” she said. “But people on the ground will say the polar bear population is quite healthy. You know, in these regions, the population has increased, in fact. Why are you [saying it’s] decreasing?” she told a meeting. “My brother is a full-time hunter who will tell you polar bear populations have increased and scientists are wrong.”
Scientists dispute this. One single polar bear population on the western shore of Hudson Bay, for example, has shrunk by nearly 10% to 850 bears in under a decade, according to the latest Canadian government estimate seen by the Guardian.
The rate of decline – and an even sharper drop in the birth and survival rate of young cubs – puts the entire population of western Hudson Bay polar bears at risk of collapse within a matter of years, scientists have warned.