Getting people and polar bears to live in harmony

I was on my way home from some fieldwork in North Baffin Island with Narwhal. The so-called ‘Polar Bear-human conflict reduction project’ is an excellent partnership of the Nunavut Government, WWF, key communities and some Inuit hunters and dogteam owners/mushers.  It aims to use and improve various measures for reducing interactions and conflicts (often leading to loss of property and life) caused by polar bears spending longer periods ashore, likely under greater stress, as sea-ice retreats for increasing portions of the summer and fall.

Donny Baker and his dogteam (c) Pete Ewins/WWF-Canada
Last year my colleague Geoff York was there, helping install some 6-strand electric fences around a few of the  dogteams chained just outside the community.  A series of bear-proof steel bins were also provided to help hunters and dogteam owners store seal and fish meat,  reducing the odours that attract hungry bears.
In October and November last year, locals involved in the project found that the solar-powered batteries weren’t keeping enough charge in the fences during the fall, and plastic bags that blow across the tundra near town were shorting them out – sadly one project participant lost some of his dogs to a polar bear that got past a shorted fence.

I had a very informative afternoon site visit with musher Donny Baker (a bright, energetic mechanic in the community, who is passionate about one day winning the Hudson Bay Quest!).  WWF will work with Donny and the other dogteam owners to help provide better solar panels and some back-up batteries, so that in a few weeks when polar bears start marching northwards in greater numbers, they won’t plunder the dog compounds.
However, I was sobered by the close proximity of the town garbage dump, so close to the coast (the polar bears main ‘highway’) and only 2 km from town.  At times up to 15 polar bears are reported in or around the dump – shades of Churchill twenty years ago, sadly.  For the nearly 3,000 people now living in Arviat, this smoldering dump (as yet there is no high-temperature incineration, or export of garbage) must represent a significant attractant for polar bears within 20+ km of Arviat.

The allowable ‘quota’ for shooting polar bears in the western Hudson Bay sub-population has already been exceeded this open-water season (since mid-July).  They were all entirely ‘defence kills’, to save human life and property along the coast.  The remains of the skull of one of these immature bears was lying beside the office of the local government Conservation Officer.  A vivid reminder that this bear-human interaction and problem is far from solved.