The war over the polar bear
Who's telling the truth about the fate of a Canadian icon?
COLIN CAMPBELL AND KATE LUNAU | Jan 25, 2008 | 15:56:05
Also at Macleans.ca:
- How (not) to approach Arctic travel | In search of a polar bear story, Maclean's reporter Colin Campbell took a last minute trip to Tuktoyaktuk
- Our polar bear love affair | How did a ferocious predator turn into one of the most marketable icons of pop culture?
In the cold, dark days of January, when the sun peeks over the southern horizon for just an hour each afternoon, Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., is little more than a sprinkling of lights on the edge of the icy Beaufort Sea. But as remote as it is, events in the south loom large here. A daily inflow of news reports about polar bears and the deadly toll of global warming comes streaming via satellite dishes throughout this tiny community of 800 almost as steadily as the snow outside. "Just about every day you see something on TV about bears," says Chucky Gruben, an Inuvialuit hunter, "so much of it is bulls--t."
Gruben's dog team rustles to life as he walks up, snow crunching loudly underfoot, and makes a few sharp whistles into the frigid arctic air. It's -51° C with the wind chill, cold enough to cancel school in Tuk, and to erase any lingering thoughts of global warming. The hearty dogs, a few of which are actually half wolf, says Gruben, seem miraculously bouncy and content in the icy weather. The team is what Gruben uses to hunt polar bears, taking American clients out on the ice for as long as two weeks for their chance to get a shot at a big 10-foot male bear. Snow machines would be easier, he says, but dog teams ensure the bears have a fighting chance and that the hunt maintains its traditional elements.
There's no hunting planned on this day, or even this month. Gruben tosses each animal a pile of frozen Pacific herring, and heads for home a few hundred yards away. Back in his house, which sits on stilts overlooking Tuk Harbour, Gruben prepares his own lunch of Lipton soup, and caribou and onion sandwiches. Lately, he's been anxiously waiting for news from Washington, a world away from this place above the Arctic Circle, over whether or not the polar bear will be listed as a threatened species in the U.S. A listing would almost certainly end the polar bear sport hunt by barring U.S. hunters from bringing their trophies back across the border (about 200 sport hunters get a chance to shoot a polar bear in Canada each year). And it would take as much as $60,000 out of his pocket, says Gruben, who has permits to take out two sport hunters this winter, each of whom would pay as much as $30,000 to go on what is considered the world's most challenging hunt.
Whether or not the hunt is cancelled, what troubles Gruben most is the assertion that the bears are in need of protection at all. So far, he says, polar bear numbers have been just fine. "If something goes wrong here, we'll know. We live it," says the 50-year-old who went on his first bear hunt with his father when he was six (a 1½-month trek with little more than 13 dogs, some flour, and sugar). Gruben may not be a biologist, but he is surely one of the world's foremost experts on the polar bear — few have spent more time around the animals than he has. "Some biologists have studied bears for 30 years, but how long have they spent on the ice? Who is the government going to believe?"
Outside the Arctic, the general opinion on polar bears, the noble animals that prowl the ice from Canada to Alaska to Russia, is that they are going the way of the dodo thanks to global warming. Bears need ice to hunt seals, their primary food source, say scientists. If the ice melts, the bears are in big, big trouble. As one recent study concluded, the vast majority of the world's polar bears could be wiped out in just 40 years if the ice keeps melting as many expect. Another report said hungry bears are resorting to cannibalism — under so much pressure that they are literally eating each other alive. In Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth slide show, one lonely bear is pictured swimming in the open ocean. "Their habitat is melting. . . beautiful animals, literally being forced off the planet," said Gore. "They're in trouble, got nowhere else to go."