A recent workshop on reducing polar bear-human conflicts included demonstrations of potential deterrence and hazing tools.

© Pete Ewins

5/23/2016 2:34:21 PM

Coming Together on Polar Bear-Human Conflict

By Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation 

“If you want to avoid challenging issues and vexing politics, stay away from Arctic marine mammals.” 

A wise colleague in Barrow, Alaska shared that advice with me back in 1996 as I embarked on a career that would ultimately ignore that warning and embrace those challenges. The world was less complicated back then—at least in the North—but a warming climate has forever changed that.

Research and management issues have grown more challenging in the Arctic for a host of reasons. Longtime polar bear conservation partners have grown apart. Consensus has become a rare commodity as scientists, managers, user groups, and the public discuss issues of population size, development, and harvest. However, amidst all this change, one topic appears to rise above the fray: How do we keep people and polar bears safe in a changing Arctic?

Earlier this year, 30 representatives from communities, governments, and tourism from across the Hudson Bay region came together for a meeting to discuss polar bear-human conflict. Such conflicts are on the rise as more polar bears spend more time ashore in more places as the sea ice retreats. The incidents often end badly for the bears and sometimes for people.

The goal of the three-day meeting was to foster a regional discussion of shared concerns, tactics, and resources—with an ultimate goal to reduce conflict and improve safety. Organizers also hoped to clear up regional misconceptions and create a shared understanding going forward. Discussions focused on conflict with polar bears: What are people seeing in different parts of Hudson Bay? What actions are communities and others taking to keep people and bears safe?

Throughout the workshop, I was blown away by the broad geographic participation, interest, and enthusiasm shown by participants. Early on several people remarked: “Why has this taken so long and when is the next workshop?”

Discussions driven by participants allowed all to share their experiences and thoughts as the workshop facilitator guided the group through broad discussion themes. Governments from Nunavut, Manitoba, and Nunavik (northern Quebec) were well represented, along with a key federal partner: Parks Canada. 

From the presentations and discussions, it became clear that both Nunavut and Manitoba are strongly engaged in conflict reduction management. Although they have differing approaches largely based on resources and geographical differences, both are investing significant funds and human resources.

In Nunavik, conflict issues are relatively new. Participants from that region were keen to learn what others are doing and to share their own experiences. The workshop even drew two international observers from Greenland. They came to listen and learn as they work to tackle growing concern about polar bear-human interactions in their country.

The workshop wrapped up with participants identifying and prioritizing an action list for next steps and expressing hope that we would all be see one another in a year to discuss progress. They also identified opportunities for greater collaboration, including:

  • Offering a polar bear guard training program
  • Making deterrents more available in remote communities
  • Identifying and addressing attractant issues
  • Providing information on polar bear safety and education

Meeting organizers WWF, Polar Bears International, and the University of Saskatchewan will work with the steering committee to finalize a report of the discussions and outcomes in the coming months. All of us look forward to implementing or supporting the actions identified by participants and working together to reduce negative polar bear-human interactions in Hudson Bay and beyond.

The workshop drew a broad range of participants keen on sharing solutions and information.

The workshop drew a broad range of participants keen on sharing solutions and information. Photo by John Main.

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