©  Polar Bear Stakeholder Forum 2015

6/30/2015 2:08:17 PM

Living Sustainably: For Some, It Is More Than an Option

Alysa McCall

My colleague, Geoff York, and I recently had the opportunity to convene with researchers, nonprofits, traditional knowledge holders, managers, and hunters from across North America to discuss the status of polar bear management and conservation. We met in hot and humid West Virginia, a huge change from the Arctic environment that many participants call home. As the week progressed, it became apparent that more than just weather differs between the North and South: so do cultures, lifestyles, and perspectives.

A big take home lesson was that the Inuit (Canada) and Inupiat (Alaska) peoples are living sustainably, eating locally, and acting as stewards of their environment as a natural extension of their culture. While many in the South choose to take these same steps (which we applaud!), people in the North don't have much choice: without sustainable living, many communities would not exist.

Hunting and gathering is still a way of life for many of these communities as grocery stores are lacking, food that is flown up is expensive, and there are few ways to make enough money to support families. Northerners must instead live in harmony with their environment, hunting only as necessary, and adjusting their harvest as needed, something they take great pride in. If any species were to be overhunted, the next generation of people may not have enough food, clothes, or supplies, which could lead to the loss of a community, or even a culture. One species that plays a prominent role in these communities is, of course, the polar bear.

Living with polar bears is a way of life for the Inupiat and Inuit, one they are dedicated to preserving. In the 1970s, polar bears were being overhunted and populations plummeted. When northern communities and scientists realized what was happening, they worked together to make sure that any harvest of polar bears was sustainable and closely monitored. Northern communities in many regions took over the management system and populations bounced back from pre-1970s levels. This is a success story for conservation and for people; if the polar bear were to vanish, these cultures would be permanently altered. Unfortunately, there is now a new threat to polar bears--one that northern communities cannot tackle on their own. 

Scientists agree that climate change is the biggest risk to polar bears and the Arctic sea ice habitat on which they depend. While polar bears are not on the brink of extinction, we do have concern for their future due to the rapidly warming Arctic and loss of sea ice.

This time, the preservation of the Arctic needs to start in the South with the use of cleaner and more sustainable energies. Northern people are already stewards of their environment, so let's work with them to preserve everyone's way of life. Though we are very different cultures in vastly different regions, we all want the same thing: to protect the future of polar bears, and people too.

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