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  (Curtis Lantinga)

 

(Curtis Lantinga)

MARGARET WENTE

Who's in trouble, polar bears or people? Add to ...

The polar bears of Hudson Bay are among the most endearing creatures on the planet. On Sunday, a remarkable documentary broadcast on the CBC showed them at their most compelling. Narrated by David Suzuki, the film Polar Bears: A Summer Odyssey features stunning images and a story line that will have your kids in tears. It follows an adolescent bear, a teenager, as he struggles for survival and navigates the frigid ocean for the first time alone, without his mother. We learn that the polar bears, who feed almost entirely during the winter, are in danger of starving to death because of global warming.

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“Each year, the ice melts earlier,” Mr. Suzuki tells us. “Today’s bears have less time on the ice than their parents and grandparents … When the ice finally vanishes, the long, hot summer begins.” This population, we are told, has dwindled by 22 per cent in less than two decades.

Or has it? Last week, the government of Nunavut released a population survey of those very same bears. It was considerably more optimistic. It estimates the bear population on the western shore of Hudson Bay at 1,013, which is a lot higher than some thought. “The bear population is not in crisis as people believed,” said Drikus Gissing, Nunavut’s director of wildlife management.

This is awful news for the David Suzuki Foundation and other environmental groups that depend on the plight of the polar bear to raise money. After all, polar bears are even more photogenic than baby seals. The stakes are so high that polar-bear statistics are bitterly disputed. Whenever someone says the bears are okay, a dozen researchers rise up to protest that they’re not – as in this case, where researchers who object to the government’s finding say their methodology is more accurate. The scientists simply don’t believe the local Inuit, who say they’re seeing as many bears as ever. They believe the Inuit are biased because the bear hunt, which is tightly regulated, brings in lots of money.

My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the polar bears have managed to survive at least 100,000 years of freezing and melting, so they will probably survive us. The most endangered species in the North isn’t polar bears. It’s people – especially young people. Unfortunately, they’re not as cute as polar bears, so they don’t get much attention.

The social indicators of Nunavut’s population, who are overwhelmingly Inuit and young, are the worst in Canada. Nunavut has the highest rate of lone-parent families and the lowest education levels in the country. Most kids don’t finish high school. The rate of teenaged pregnancy is five times greater than the national average, and the rate of child sex abuse is 10 times the national average. The rates of suicide and murder are also more than 10 times higher than in the south. Thirty per cent of people over 12 are heavy drinkers. Among Inuit families with children aged 3 to 5, household food insecurity is 70 per cent.

There are about 15,000 polar bears across Canada’s Arctic, according to Mr. Gissing. There are about 33,000 people in Nunavut, who are overwhelmingly dependent for their survival on the state. Social conditions haven’t improved much in the 13 years since Nunavut became a territory. Fortunately, the tourism business is reasonably good. People from the South are happy to pay thousands of dollars for the chance to spot a musk ox or a polar bear. At the moment, they don’t seem to be having any problem.

There are about 25,000 polar bears in the north circumpolar region, of which about 15,000 are in the Canadian High Arctic. Incorrect information appeared on April 5 and 10 in original print editions and earlier online versions.

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