In the latest example of the gap between Canadian and American views about polar-bear hunting, a Michigan man could face jail after pleading guilty to bringing home a mounted trophy of a bear he had legally shot in Nunavut a decade ago.
Rodger Dale DeVries, 73, entered a guilty plea this week to one count of illegally importing polar-bear parts.
While U.S. prosecutors portrayed the case as an example of vigorous environmental protection, it reinforced Inuit worries that opponents to the polar-bear hunt in the United States are marginalizing them, much as Atlantic seal hunters have become international pariahs.
“The polar bear is an ecological and cultural treasure of the American and Canadian Arctic,” U.S. assistant attorney-general Ignacia Moreno said in a statement after Mr. DeVries’s court appearance. “We will not tolerate the illegal importation of polar-bear trophies and will fully prosecute all violations of federal law.”
Since May of 2008, the U.S. government has listed polar bears as a threatened species and banned the importation of pelts and heads from any parts of Canada, a move that has hurt Nunavut outfitters and others benefiting from the tourism money of big-game hunters.
The controversial decision was based on concerns about declining sea ice rather than a decrease in the number of bears.
In fact, in the past 40 years, the Canadian polar-bear population has soared from 8,000 to 15,000, said Gabriel Nirlungayuk, director of wildlife for Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the organization advocating for the territory’s Inuit.
“It’s discouraging. In our mind, we have a very good polar bear hunt management,” he said of the American ban.
In Canada, polar bears are listed as a species of special concern, the least critical category under of the Species at Risk Act, for animals that aren’t threatened or endangered but could become so if threatening factors aren’t reversed.
Mr. DeVries’s case predates the May 2008 American classification.
However, he was charged because he shot the bear in the Foxe Basin area, north of Hudson Bay, a place where the U.S. Department of the Interior hadn’t confirmed that the hunt was conducted at sustainable levels.
According to court documents, Mr. DeVries travelled to Nunavut in November, 2000, where he obtained a licence and polar-bear tag and paid an outfitter $12,500 to take him hunting.
After killing a bear, he had it mounted by a taxidermist in Calgary. Mr. DeVries then left it in storage with a friend there because he knew he couldn’t legally take it to the U.S.
In the summer of 2007, he went back to Calgary and moved the bear mount and its skull to a storage unit in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. From there, Mr. DeVries and his two grandchildren, both minors, took the trophy by boat to a tiny harbour in northern Michigan, then drove it home.
The maximum sentence for his offence is one year in jail and a fine of $100,000. However, by pleading guilty, Mr. DeVries can request a sentence reduction.
Management of polar bears is a shared responsibility between Ottawa and the provinces and territories, with hunting tags issued by the Nunavut government.
A 2009 study by the Humane Society International and the International Fund for Animal Welfare argues that polar-bear trophy hunting is not an Inuit tradition but a recent phenomenon that contributes to less than one per cent of the Nunavut GDP.
Mr. Nirlungayuk said, however, that the tags sold to foreign hunters come out of a community’s quota so that trophy hunting doesn’t affect the number of harvested bears while bringing money to remote communities where the cost of living is high.
He also bristled at the idea of non-natives defining what constitutes the Inuit way of life.
“Who are they to say that it’s not traditional? It’s not traditional for you guys to be in a car. Should you be riding horses? Our culture has evolved.”