WASHINGTON -- Until they were classified three years ago in the United States as a threatened species, Canadian polar bears were the ultimate trophy for many elite American sport hunters.
Led by Inuit guides, hunters traveled for days by dog sled to the far northern reaches of iced-over Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. They endured temperatures so far below zero that they had to cover all exposed skin, and they paid dearly for it. Each trip cost $40,000 to $60,000, and few hunters were satisfied until they brought home a bear.
Now, though, few Americans make the grueling Arctic trek. Since the 2008 listing, Americans can't import polar bear trophies -- generally a tanned skin and claws along with the skull and the penis bone, known scientifically as a "baculum" and in the indigenous languages of the Arctic as an "oosik."
For an additional 41 American hunters who shot their bears in early 2008 just before the Endangered Species Act took effect, there's no evidence of their accomplishment. Their trophies remain in cold storage in Canada, caught in legal limbo.
It's "disheartening," said Mark Beeler, a contractor from Hubertus, Wis., who killed a bear in April 2008 after waiting nearly three years for a guide with experience leading a bow hunter.
"I'm not sorry I went," said Beeler, 52. "I'll never be sorry I went. It was an experience of a lifetime that nobody can take away from me. But it would nice to have the trophy back in the U.S."
His case and that of the 40 other sport hunters went to federal court in Washington, D.C., last month, as a small piece of a multi-party lawsuit dominated by environmental groups that want the U.S. government to list polar bears as endangered, not merely threatened. Also, pending legislation, pushed by Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young, would allow hunters to import their trophies.
"People save for a lifetime to go on a bear hunt," said John Jackson III, a Louisiana attorney who heads the pro-hunting nonprofit Conservation Force, and who, along with a lawyer from Safari Club International, argued on behalf of the 41 in court.
"This is one of the greatest Arctic adventures, by dog sled, 700 to 800 miles above the Arctic Circle, as much as 60 below zero temperatures, with Native people," Jackson said. "It's one of the hardest, most adventurous hunts in the world, but it's the relationship with the people and the habitat -- as well as the extraordinary animal. All of it's an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Many of the hunters declined to be interviewed, saying they feared they would become targets of animal-rights activists. Their names are a public record, however, because to import polar bear trophies from Canada they must submit an application to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which publishes it in the Federal Register. They must also pay $1,000.
Beyond the ability to afford such a hunt, the hunters share a love of the outdoors and the insatiable urge to track and kill animals in far-flung places.
'SHE SHOT IT LEGALLY'
Larry Steiner, who owns a meatpacking business in Otego, N.Y., described looking for bears among the pressure ridges in Arctic sea ice where they hunt ringed seals. His party also tracked their paw prints in the snow, Steiner said.
"I saw the polar bear from a distance with binoculars," said Steiner, 65, who traveled in 2008 to Grise Fiord in Nunavut. "I was amazed. I'd only seen pictures of polar bear before. When I did get this polar bear in my sights, I couldn't believe it; it was awesome."
"I just love the north country," said James Martell, a 70-year-old rancher and rural telephone company owner from Glenns Ferry, Idaho, who has shot two bears in five journeys to Canada. They include a rare grizzly-polar bear hybrid he has on display at his home on Idaho's Snake River.
"I love the hard hunts. It is very hard mentally," he said. "You can't hardly prepare for the cold -- it was 60 below zero. You're sleeping on the ice."
It's much the same for Ethel Leedy of Delta Junction, the only woman among the 41.
"It's born in me," said Leedy, who was 80 when she went out with two female Inuit guides and shot a bear on Mother's Day near Resolute Bay, Nunavut. "I like to stalk the animal."
Leedy first began hunting at age 12, when she learned to pick off the hedgehogs that dotted the horse pasture on her father's farm.
"It's her property and she should have it," said her husband, Dick Leedy, 78, also an accomplished hunter, but whose eyesight has deteriorated to the point at which he couldn't accompany his wife on the polar bear hunt. "It's nothing but a bunch of federal fish and wildlife politics. By rights the polar bear is hers. She shot it legally."
Animal-protection groups don't outright endorse sport hunting of the bears, but they do have an uncomfortable truce with the concept. The World Wildlife Fund's Geoff York, a polar bear expert, said the organization doesn't oppose sustainable harvests when they benefit local economies.
York said what's currently worrying them is an uptick in the value of polar bear hides, spurred in part by new wealth in Russia and China. Because guides haven't had paying customers, in some cases they're using their quotas to kill the bears and sell their pelts. An increased value for pelts means more bears are likely to be killed or poached.
"This is definitely a concern of ours -- we're seeing more polar bear skins going into trade," York said. "There's an increased demand because of those two countries, in part because of loss of revenue from hunts."
An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears range across Canada, Russia, Greenland, Norway and Alaska. Sport hunting is legal only in Canada, home to an estimated 15,000 of the animals.
Although the bears have a special status in Canada, the Canadian government objected to the 2008 threatened listing. Each Canadian province within the bears' range has established its own harvest rules. Some have quotas; others do not. The hunting licenses go to Native people, who determine in their communities how to divide them. That's caused concern this year among the hunters of Nunavut, who have a quota, and those of the northern Quebec community of Nunavik, who do not.
Canada contains or shares 13 different polar bear populations, said Ian Stirling, a polar bear researcher at the University of Alberta. Most appear to have sustainable harvests but a few do not, he said.
If a sustainable quota is set on the basis of sound scientific data, it doesn't matter from a conservation perspective whether an Inuit hunter or a guided nonresident sport hunter kills the bear, Stirling said.
"Hunting polar bears is an important part of the Inuit culture and economy in Canada and, so long as the hunting is truly sustainable, then whether or not they are hunted becomes a matter of personal philosophy and government management practices," he said in an email.
Alaska Natives too can shoot a limited number each year under U.S. subsistence hunting laws. About three dozen are shot each year in Alaska, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But sport hunting for polar bears has effectively been off limits in this country for four decades.
SUPPORT FROM YOUNG
Hunting groups seeking to reverse the ban have also appealed to Young, R-Alaska, a lifelong hunter and one of Safari Club International's greatest supporters in Congress. Many of the hunters seeking to bring their trophies to the United States from Canada are active in the group as well as donating to it.
"We went to Don Young the day after the bear was listed and asked him to help," said Jackson of Conservation Force. "He understood it immediately and started working on it immediately."
Young introduced legislation that allows the 41 to import their trophies; a separate bill allows future hunters to do so too. The legislation is likely to pass the Republican-led House of Representatives but its fate is less certain in the U.S. Senate.
"The idea that we're now protecting 41 dead carcasses just bothers the daylights out of everyone who's hunted legitimately under Canadian law and thought they were doing everything correctly," Young said, calling it "pure nonsense."
"It just doesn't make logical sense to me," he said. "It's their property. And they spent thousands of dollars."
Young himself shot a polar bear near Kotzebue on the Chukchi Sea in 1964. At the time, hunters went out in planes to spot them, Young said, then landed in a position where the polar bears would come to them. He wouldn't be involved in such a lopsided hunt now, he said, but at the time it was how polar bear hunting was conducted in Alaska. In fact, government court filings note that the Marine Mammal Protection Act was enacted in 1972 in part to end the practice of aerial polar bear hunting in Alaska.
Young has plenty of exotic trophies, including a zebra skin draped over a sofa in his congressional office. But he doesn't have a polar bear. Of limited means in 1964, he said he took his polar bear to a cheap taxidermist and the hair eventually slipped off it.
The Fish and Wildlife Service won't take a position on Young's pending legislation. But the government has continued to vigorously defend in court any move that would weaken the import ban. It rejects the arguments by the Safari Club and Conservation Force, saying their claims "cannot be squared with Congress' express intention to provide expansive protections to all marine mammals."
In court filings, lawyers for the government point to the Endangered Species Act, which says that any marine mammal that's listed as endangered or threatened under it is also considered "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
With limited exceptions, that law prohibits importing depleted animals; as a result, sport-hunted polar bear trophies from Canada can't be imported, the government argues, even if they were hunted before the law took effect.
Dan Frederick, who runs Ameri-Cana Expeditions Inc. out of Edmonton, Alberta, and works with guides in Grise Fiord, said their polar bear hunting business is at about 15 percent of what it was before the ban. It's now made up almost exclusively of visitors from outside North America.
Frederick's convinced, though, that the government will eventually change its mind and allow U.S. hunters to bring home their polar bear trophies.
"When it does reopen, the interest definitely will be skyrocketing up to what it was," Frederick said. "I'll be filling up my camps again. Once they open it up, the guys will be standing in line again, because lots of guys want to do it. But they want to bring it back."
By ERIKA BOLSTAD
Alaska Dispatch Publishing