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A Nunavut licence plate in the city of Iqaluit on March 29, 2009. The government of Nunavut has announced a contest to design something to replace its distinctive bear-shaped licence plates, Wednesday Aug. 3, 2011.NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Polar bears could soon become extinct in Canada's Eastern Arctic – on licence plates.

The government of Nunavut has announced a design contest to replace them because it is no longer able to issue the distinctive bear-shaped plates that have adorned the backs of vehicles in the territory since it was created 12 years ago.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for someone to become famous," Nunavut Transportation Minister Peter Taptuna said.

The territory's decision to abandon the bear dates back to its separation from the old Northwest Territories in 1999.

At the time, both the NWT and the new jurisdiction of Nunavut wanted to keep the popular plate. It had been associated with the NWT since 1971. But Nunavut argued that it had a stronger claim to the design, since most polar bears live on its side of the boundary.

In the end, the two governments agreed to share the design – but the copyright remained with the western territory.

"We let them use it," said Earl Blacklock of the NWT Transportation Department.

Last year, the company that manufactures the plates informed the NWT that the dies used to stamp them from sheet metal were worn and would have to be replaced. The territory took the opportunity to update its licence design by slightly changing the shape of the bear and increasing its reflectivity. The new plates were first issued last summer.

However, the NWT is keeping the new design for itself and Nunavut has decided to come up with something new as well.

That doesn't mean Nunavut's few dozen kilometres of road will see the same rectangles as everywhere else in Canada.

"Our polar bear licence plate was very popular because of its shape," Mr. Taptuna said. "This new licence plate could take on a unique shape as well."

The winner will receive $1,500. The contest ends Aug. 26.

Editor's note: The original version of this article from The Canadian Press gave an incorrect first name for Nunavut Transportation Minister Peter Taptuna. This version has been corrected.