Polar bear management discussions get underway

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Representatives of the coastal Cree Nations, along with hunters from each community, met in Chisasibi in early September to discuss a future polar-bear management regime for the Eeyou Marine Region and the Southern Hudson Bay population.

This follows on a request in 2012 from the federal environment minister that the Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board develop and implement a regime that would include a total annual allowable harvest.

Polar bear populations are usually too low in Eeyou Istchee to be hunted, and were classified as a threatened species in 2008. Alan Penn, Science Advisor to the Cree Nation Government, noted that regular encounters in Eeyou Istchee occur even though the polar bear population dens on the Ontario coast and the islands on Central James Bay.

“The bears appear to migrate from the west coast of James Bay to south-eastern Hudson Bay,” Penn said. “The James Bay Cree in Quebec are not on a major route. There are pockets, and in certain areas like Charlton Island, the Cree are familiar with the presence of polar bears. But the Cree coastline is not generally seen as primary bear habitat.”

Penn noted that Makivik is the main driver of the consultation, as the Inuit communities of Nunavik have a much deeper connection with the polar bear. However, the Cree Nation is allotted an allowable take of four bears per year (out of a total population of 850 to 950 in the Hudson Bay-Fox Basin-Hudson Strait-Ungava Bay region), which means the Cree Nation has a place at the discussion table.

Sanford Diamond, LEMR Officer for the Waskaganish Cree Trappers Association, said it was difficult to predict what a management plan would look like.

“Right now it’s at the development process. We have to meet again with the three boards – Nunavut Marine Region, the Eeyou Marine Region, the Cree government – as well as the CTA. It’s a combined effort,” Diamond explained.

“Most Crees don’t eat polar bears,” he added. “We don’t shoot what we don’t eat. The main aspect of it on the Cree side was public safety. For me, I have five camps on Charlton Island, and there are a lot of polar bear sightings on the island. It was more of a discussion of property – and life-protection for spring-camp users.”

Diamond notes that encounters with polar bears are becoming more frequent, particularly on offshore islands, but also closer to communities.

“For my community, the users on Charlton Island have reported seeing them a lot more in the last couple of years,” he said. “Just recently, there was an incident with a polar bear on Charlton Island. They had to shoot at it, but not damage it. Just to deter it from coming close to the camp. The Elder shot close to the bear, and it ran off. The Elders are aware of what to do with polar bears, but nowadays not as many Elders go out on the island.”

Polar bears are attracted to camps and waste-disposal sites, which can create interactions with humans, Penn noted. Biologists have reported the population is beginning to show signs of stress and decline, possibly related to shelf-ice conditions and conditions that degrade bears’ chances of hunting ring-seals. However, he noted that polar bears have long been present on the Twin Islands and Akimiski Island in central James Bay.

“The Cree need to be in a position to deal with the defence of life and property to deal with bears that do come into camps without necessarily killing them, but without having people killed, or dogs,” Penn said. “It’s a public safety and public security issue there.”

Diamond stresses the need to avoid storing garbage or fresh kill near camp. He underlines that, if possible, shooting near bears to scare them away is always preferable to killing them, except in emergencies.

“If you kill a polar bear, that’s a lot of paperwork,” Diamond said. “It has to be tagged, and properly identified. You need to take samples of meat and hide. We ask the hunter to bring them to us. We have to contact the Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs in order to properly identify that there was a defence/emergency kill.”


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