IQALUIT, Canada -- Doomsday predictions of the polar bear's demise tend to draw an Inuit guffaw here in Nunavut, the remote Arctic territory where polar bears in some places outnumber people. People will tell you about the polar bear that strode brazenly past the dump a month ago or the bear that attacked a dog team in the town of Arviat in November. Heart-rending pictures of polar bears clinging to tiny islands of ice elicit nothing but derision.
The move to protect polar bears is appreciated for one thing, however, and that's a hefty hike in the price for a dead one. Across Canada, prices for polar bear pelts have soared over the last few years, with two at a June 20 auction in Ontario fetching a record $16,500 each.
"Four years ago, we were lucky to get a thousand dollars for a 7-foot polar bear. Now, you can sell that 7-foot polar bear for between $3,500 and $4,000," said Frank Pokiak, chairman of the Inuvialuit Game Council in northwestern Canada.
The only country in the world that allows its polar bears to be shot and sold commercially on the international market, Canada -- home to two-thirds of the remaining population -- has reaped the benefits of the rest of the globe's concern for the bear. So have its native people. An estimated 77 percent of the world trade in polar bear parts in recent years came from about 500 bears a year killed in Canada, 300 of which typically enter the international market, according to a review by the Humane Society of the United States and Canadian officials.
Now U.S. conservation groups are pushing the U.S. to back an agreement that would ban most international trade in polar bear parts, with a move to upgrade the listing for the polar bear under the 175-nation Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES.
Forty-three Democrats from the House of Representatives signed a letter in June in favor of the upgrade. Further, the Center for Biological Diversity in January petitioned the U.S. Interior Department to initiate trade sanctions against Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement, contending the nation is in violation of a 1973 treaty on conservation of polar bears.
"Not only is Canada home to two-thirds of the world's population of polar bears, but it's home to what is arguably the most important population of polar bears, because it's the population in Canada that scientists expect to persist the longest in the face of global warming," said Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is pushing for the trade ban.
Inuit leaders from Canada's far north are preparing to fight back, arguing that new international restrictions could wreck the region's fragile economy and possibly create even greater threats to the bears.
"For the world to suggest that we'll save the polar bears and forget the people, that's a little backwards," said Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents about 55,000 Inuit across Canada. He and most Canadian game management officials argue that Canada's polar bear quotas are set well within sustainable levels.
"The Inuit have always hunted the polar bear. It's in our best interest to ensure the population is healthy," Audla said. "But people have to have faith in us and work with us -- to base things on facts, and not listen to these animal rights activists who are bending the truth."
Polar bears depend heavily on sea ice to survive, using it as a resting place and springboard from which to hunt seals. Rising temperatures have caused dramatic shrinkage of Arctic ice, especially in the summer months, and biologists have documented smaller bear populations in some areas, bears hungry and thin, bears forced to swim hundreds of miles between ice floes and bears forced to seek food near human communities on shore.
The risk of future declines is considered "very high" for bear populations in six regions across Alaska and Canada, according to the Polar Bear Specialist Group, an international union of research scientists; in at least two of those areas, Kane Basin and Baffin Bay, a Canadian government-ordered study blamed declines not on global warming but on unsustainably high harvests by hunters, many of them in nearby Greenland.
The government of Nunavut drew international cries of protest in October when it increased the hunting quota from eight to 21 bears in western Hudson Bay -- where numbers already have declined from 1,200 two decades ago to about 700. Nunavut officials said their most recent aerial survey proved there were actually 1,000 bears in the region. Hunters in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, likely motivated by soaring pelt prices, killed 60 bears during the 2011 early spring hunt, several times the normal harvest, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported.
Wildlife managers here fear a ban on the polar bear trade could have precisely the opposite of its intended effect. Canada would still allow domestic hunts, they say, but eliminating the market for pelts and sport hunts would wipe out any economic incentive to protect bears from indiscriminate shooting.
"We have communities where, especially in the middle of winter when there's 24 hours of night, you have polar bears coming into the community nearly all the time, destroying property. ... But when there's a benefit to them, people are more willing to conserve their species," said Drikus Gissing, director of wildlife for the Nunavut Department of Environment.
"This is what I predict will happen. And I hope my predictions are wrong. If CITES uplists polar bears, people will continue to hunt polar bears, but they won't be able to sell them, except in Canada, and what will happen is the value of those hides will deteriorate to nothing," Gissing said. "And then the whole management objectives in Nunavut will change. ... We will still maintain (the bears) in viable numbers. But nowhere near the numbers we have now."
Under Canadian law, only native Inuit can hunt and sell polar bears as a "subsistence" harvest. Foreign sport hunters -- most of them come now from Europe and Russia since the U.S. banned importation of polar bear trophies -- must be accompanied by an Inuit guide and hunt in the traditional way, using a dog sled. Many pay as much as $50,000 for the privilege, a bonanza for remote towns where the occasional tourist is unlikely to pay anywhere near that amount.
"We're a community of 2,800 people and 60, maybe 70 percent unemployment. So the economic value of the polar bear sport hunt is huge," said Ryan St. John, a hunting guide from the town of Arviat in the western Hudson Bay region. The U.S. import ban has resulted in an estimated $300,000 annual loss to the community, he said.
The market for polar bear pelts, most eventually fashioned into prized rugs, has been on overdrive in the past two years, with many saying threats of an international trade ban are responsible.
"One buyer may come, and he'll have orders for 20 bears for some accounts they have in Russia," said Mark Downey, who runs Fur Harvesters Auction Inc. in North Bay, Ontario. "A lot of the Chinese I'm dealing with, they're young guys taking over their dad's business, or starting up their own business."
Downey credits not the prospect of a trade ban but the aggressive international marketing efforts of his company, a cooperative owned by fur harvesters from the Canadian north. Downey regularly attends trade fairs in Moscow, Beijing and Hong Kong and sells buyers on the value of Canadian polar bears, beaver and fox.
Activists are hoping that when CITES nations convene in March 2013, they will have support from Russia, which banned most polar bear hunting in 1956 but still has a significant poaching problem, and also Europe, which did not support an upgrade of polar bears' status when the U.S. pushed for one, and lost, in 2010.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken comments on the issue over the past several months and probably will decide this fall on whether to make a new run at moving polar bears to Appendix 1, the most protected category, next year.
Not all conservation groups are pushing for such a move. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, has said the international trade is "not currently a significant threat" to the species. Many Inuit elders here say the bears face bigger threats from biologists bent on relentlessly studying the bears than from hunters with rifles.
"You see people teasing them with a helicopter, targeting them with darts, it really bothers me -- makes me puke," said Lew Philip, 65, who killed his first polar bear at the age of 8. Now, he hunts about four polar bears a year with his sons. The family eats polar bear rib roasts and stews; he gives hides to his family and neighbors for blankets but sees nothing wrong with his neighbors selling their hides for a good price.
"The people from down south, they want to come up here and grab the bears, take them to California, put 'em in a tub of ice in the zoo. Well, a lot of people, they watch this and they cry," he said. "That's how sorry they feel for that animal."