Are polar bear numbers increasing in the Hudson Bay regions of Nunavut?

Q: Are polar bear numbers increasing in the Hudson Bay regions of Nunavut? If so, should wildlife managers increase hunting quotas?

A: Residents of many communities in Hudson Bay are seeing more polar bears. These polar bears are increasingly getting into food caches, entering camps, and posing risks to communities and residents. The observation that “people are seeing more bears in and around sites of human activities” is real evidence of a change from the past conditions northern residents knew. One interpretation of these observations is that polar bear numbers are high and increasing. The proposed management action in response to that interpretation is to raise harvests. This decision flows from the evidence/knowledge that more bears seen in communities, to concluding there are more bears in the population.

But do these increased sightings mean there are more bears? Western science-based knowledge/evidence shows that in the Southern and Western Hudson Bay populations, polar bear body condition has been declining, polar bears are having fewer cubs, fewer cubs are surviving after birth, and numbers have dropped overall. From that knowledge, the interpretation of western scientists and managers is that these Hudson Bay populations are declining.

It is easy to integrate the two pieces of knowledge/evidence: Lower survival rates and reduced numbers are linked to inadequate nutrition resulting from polar bears being off the ice (and away from their seal prey) for more prolonged periods. Because they are increasingly malnourished while on land for longer periods, more of these bears are venturing into settlement areas looking for food, and more bear/human conflict situations emerge. So, both kinds of knowledge—more bears coming into communities and creating conflict situations, and reduced food availability on ice, making more bears spend time on land where there is little or no food—are consistent with each other.

The difficulty comes not in reconciling the knowledge/evidence, but in reconciling the management actions necessary to deal with the situation. Polar Bears International is focused on conflict-reduction efforts to prevent dangerous encounters—from taking steps to reduce attractants (using bear-proof garbage cans, for example) to sharing information on the best deterrent tools, such as bear spray.