© WWF / Clive Tesar

Combining scientific and Indigenous knowledge to conserve polar bears

20 April 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Polar Bears: Facing a Changing Arctic. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Polar bears became the poster children for climate warming because it’s easy to understand their dependence on sea ice as a platform from which to hunt their main food source: seals. But doing in-depth research on the subject in Canada is complicated. Ian Stirling explains why he thinks that to protect the bears as their situation grows more precarious, we need to go back to the formula that led to early success: cooperation between researchers and Indigenous hunters.

I've spent the past 50 years researching polar bears to help guide management decisions and environmental assessments in Canada. From the beginning of my research on polar bears in western Hudson Bay and the Beaufort Sea in 1970—and later in other parts of the Canadian Arctic—a top priority was to determine the boundaries of possible subpopulations, then estimate their sizes in order to calculate sustainable harvest levels for Inuit hunters. But where do you start from a position of little first-hand knowledge on such a huge, expensive and important task?

The answer was obvious: from the beginning, each of these projects benefited enormously from invaluable local ecological knowledge that experienced hunters shared willingly. Their knowledge of denning locations, the bears’ prime seal hunting areas and aspects of seasonal movements and distribution was thorough and totally reliable. However, on other topics, neither Inuit nor scientists had the answers, so studies were needed. For example, questions about offshore movements could only be addressed using satellite radio collars. When the first results became available, hunters were fascinated. Often, they were surprised to realize that they shared a subpopulation of polar bears with hunters from other areas or jurisdictions.

Because of concerns about the possible overhunting of polar bears, temporary quotas were established in 1968 in the Northwest Territories and Yukon to control the harvest until revisions could be made using research results. Hunting polar bears is of primary cultural and economic importance to Inuit hunters, so estimating sustainable harvest levels was a priority for both hunters and scientists. To obtain that information, we needed to temporarily immobilize many bears in each area and tag individuals, not just for population studies but to collect essential specimens—for example, a small, non-functional, pre-molar tooth from which the age of each animal could be determined and used to calculate rates of annual survival and reproduction.

Later, the widespread use of satellite collars provided essential information on the year-round movements of many individual bears, greatly improving the accuracy of our knowledge of preliminary borders, which had been based mainly on the locations where previously captured bears were recaptured or shot by hunters. Not everyone liked the idea of the animals being handled, but it was widely accepted that the results of the tagging and radio-tracking studies—when evaluated alongside local ecological knowledge—were needed to meet our objectives together. (Nevertheless, because Inuit hunters and scientists alike had concerns about whether handling the bears might have unknown negative side effects, several studies were undertaken to evaluate that question. To date, nothing negative related to the bears’ survival, body condition or reproduction has been identified.)

Bringing the environment into the picture

We also needed to increase our knowledge of how natural fluctuations in the polar bears’ environment might affect them, not only for harvest management but to inform environmental assessments of large offshore industrial activities. For example, in the Beaufort Sea, we found that between 1974 and 1975, reproduction of ringed seals plummeted by about 50 per cent because of natural causes. The proportion of young-of-the-year seals harvested by Inuvialuit hunters dropped from the normal rate of about 30 per cent in the open-water hunt in 1974 to less than five per cent in 1975 before beginning to recover in 1976. Not surprisingly, the reproduction and cub survival of polar bears plummeted as well. Significantly, a highly knowledgeable Inuvialuit hunter told me at the time that he had seen this before, noting that “it happens once in a great while.” It was clear that we needed to know more about such events and how they might influence management considerations.

In response, we began a long-term population study in the early 1980s in western Hudson Bay to monitor the polar bear population in relation to natural environmental fluctuations. At the time, we were not even thinking about climate warming. At first, as expected, our results indicated fluctuations between years as a consequence of natural variability. However, by the mid-1990s, we were detecting negative effects on the population that resulted from the loss of sea ice because of climate warming. Slowly but steadily, the bears’ body conditions and their cubs’ survival rates declined, as did the size of the population.

Since then, similar results have been confirmed in other populations. Not all populations are showing negative effects yet, but if the Arctic continues to warm as predicted, all will be negatively affected eventually. To prevent this, we need to stop anthropogenic climate warming. Without access to 20 years of data collected the same way every year, we would not have been able to confirm what is happening. This fact underlines the critical value of long-term studies on polar bears and the effects of environmental change in the ecosystem.

Unfortunately, in areas where population declines have been confirmed, reductions in harvest quotas have been implemented or recommended—because it is simply not possible to have a sustainable harvest from a declining population. Such conclusions have precipitated conflicts in places like the western Hudson Bay coast: local people have seen more bears in recent years and conclude that their numbers are increasing. However, the science tells us that there are more bears in towns because as temperatures rise and the open-water period lengthens, many are running out of the fat stores they need to survive through the summer. Thus, some bears enter towns because they are looking for food.

The results of more than 30 years of careful research, including some done by the Nunavut government, confirm that the population is indeed declining. These differing views on the numbers of polar bears have made polar bear management more contentious. Consequently, managers have to make difficult decisions because of a rapidly changing environment.

Looking back to move forward

Looking back, I was privileged to be part of what was probably the most exciting time to be involved in polar bear research in Canada. The challenges were new, and interested parties worked together nationally and internationally to conserve and manage the bears sustainably. Experienced hunters shared valuable information and worked with scientists. We learned from each other. Canada was widely regarded as a world leader. But we didn’t get there by accident.

More recently, concerns have been expressed about whether data-based management is still working. To me, the answer is simple: we need to simply go back to working together, and we need to use the most effective non-harmful methodologies available, including the temporary immobilization of polar bears for tagging, collection of specimens and deploying satellite collars to study movements. That is what worked earlier, and it can still work moving forward.

IAN STIRLING is a research scientist emeritus in the Wildlife Research Division of Environment and Climate Change Canada and an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.