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Canada Remembers Significance of Polar Bears

by Audrey Hoffer

Sheila Riordon, political minister at the Embassy of Canada, welcomed guests to a lively conversation and photo slide show about polar bear co-management on Oct. 29.

It is the 40-year-anniversary of the milestone 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears signed by the five polar bear range states — Canada, U.S./Alaska, Russia, Greenland, Norway — and the Canadian Embassy marked the occasion with a panel and art gallery exhibit about the polar bear.

Forty years ago, these five nations recognized changes to polar bear populations were occurring and they got together to pool ideas, research and resources to address the challenges. Today, they are again assessing the bear’s status, looking at new problems and deciding how to move forward.

Marble Polar Bear Sculpture by Inuit artist Nuna Parr in the center of the Canadian Embassy's reception hall during the reception for the Polar Bear Co-Management Panel and gallery opening on Oct 29, 2013.  Guests mingle with drinks in the background.

“The arctic is deeply routed in Canadian history and culture,” said Katherine Baird, Minister Congressional, Public & Intergovernmental Relations, Embassy of Canada, “and polar bears are fundamental to Canadian identity.”
According to Basile van Havre, Director of the Population Conservation and Management Division/Canadian Wildlife Service, the creatures are an iconic species and an important symbol in Canada, especially in the northern part of the country. Their image is imprinted on the Canadian two-dollar coin and is symbolic in the same way that flowers and trees are.
To the 155,000 Inuit living in Canada, Russia, Greenland and Alaska — Inuit are a culturally distinct Aboriginal peoples recognized by Canada’s Constitution — “the polar bear is part of our life, culture and arctic survival,” said Larry Carpenter, current Chair of the Wildlife Management Advisory Council M– Northwest Territories.  “It plays an integral role in people’s lives, diet and economy.
The total global population of the bears is 20,000 to 25,000; in Canada alone, it is 16,000. The Canadian population is seemingly stable, but it is threatened on several fronts.

Basile van Havre, director of the Population Conservation and Management Division of the Canadian Wildlife Service, left, and Larry Carpenter, current chair of the Wildlife Management Advisory Council – Northwest Territories, headline a panel discussion at the Canadian Embassy on the status of polar bears in the Arctic.

Climate change is the primary threat to its habitat. Industrial development of oil and gas, mining and tourism are also problematic. Shipping is detrimental to bears because the ships cut through wide swaths of bears’ ice habitat. Toxics and contaminants pollute the water, ice and seals that the bears eat. Illegal poaching of polar bears occurs but not in Canada.

These are relatively new issues confronting bear populations and “now is the time to figure out how we want to address these threats of tomorrow,” said van Havre.

Carpenter is a longtime member of the Wildlife Management Advisory Council, located next to Alaska, 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle.  The council is a co-management board comprised of Inuit, federal government officials and wildlife experts who bring together traditional and scientific knowledge from a cultural and management perspective.
Inuit have been harvesting polar bear for food and clothing for thousands of years.  “We need proper management of polar bears to ensure they are there for our future,” said Carpenter.
Proper management means understanding as much as possible about polar bear life, habitat and contemporary threats to their survival.  “Often critical issues are reduced to sound bites,” said Geoff York, Director of the World Wildlife Fund Global Arctic Program Office, “and the result is that nuances are missing from the discourse.”
He acknowledged that the warming trajectory around the globe and especially in the Arctic due to climate change is threatening.  It’s likely “fewer bears will be in fewer places by the end of the century,” he said.  But change will occur at different rates and in different ways across the Arctic so it’s essential that the five countries with populations synthesize efforts to study the bears and coordinate their management.
“We need to have a good understanding of the data among all the countries,” because real success in conservation will come from working together and not against each other, York added.
Polar bears are tied to the ice in a profound way.  “The good news is that they are a large predator still living in most of its habitat,” said York.  “Let’s take action today to soften the path” of potential problems in the future.

“Inuit Ullumi: Inuit Today, Contemporary Art from TD Bank Group’s Inuit Collection” runs through March 15 at the Embassy of Canada Art Gallery, 501 Pennsylvania Ave., NW.

Audrey Hoffer is a contributing writer for Diplomatic Pouch.



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