High Arctic Polar Bear Hunting With a Bow Is One of the World’s Most Demanding Adventures.
By Tom Edgington
Earlier that day, a seal had apparently edged farther from its escape hole while basking in the sun. The vast expanse of frozen ocean must have given the ringed seal great visibility each time it woke to look around and test the wind. Little did it know that a half-ton of instant death was slithering its way toward it through the frozen chunks of ice.
The white bear likely grabbed the seal in its powerful jaws. The struggle ended quickly. The great predator devoured the seal until only small remnants of hide remained on the bloodstained ice. While this scenario is very likely, it was a fact that this is the bear that I had come to the Arctic hunt.
A Polar Bear Primer
The Safari Club International Record Book recognizes three species of bears in North America: black bear, brown bear and polar bear. Polar bears can only be legally hunted in Nunavut and remain the toughest bear to harvest, not only because of the harsh habitat where they live but also the myriad laws and regulations governing their harvest and importation.
There are several pieces of legislation and international treaties that control an American hunter’s ability to hunt a polar bear. One of the first laws enacted by the United States government to control the harvest of polar bears was the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) which originally prohibited “sport hunting” of polar bears in the U.S. as well as the importation of polar bear parts into the U.S.
While some polar bears live in Alaska, the MMPA prohibits the hunting of those bears by non-natives. In 1994, the MMPA was amended to permit the importation into the United States of polar bears that were taken by American hunters in Canada.
Polar bears are also governed by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) which was enacted to protect threatened and endangered species, and aid in the recovery and protection of its habitat.
The ESA is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and specifically provides that a decision of whether to list a species as “threatened” or “endangered” must be based only on the best available scientific and commercial data using information to which the agency has access and information obtained from the public through the rulemaking process.
When an animal is listed as endangered, no person may import, export, sell or take the endangered species. These prohibitions may also be applied to threatened species. However, threatened status also allows scaling back federal protection as they recover and no longer need the maximum protections of the ESA.
The U.S. is also a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also called CITES. The polar bear is currently listed under Appendix II, which requires a hunter to obtain a special export permit before the bear can cross an international border.
However, in 2008, USFWS declared the polar bear threatened due to declining sea ice throughout the polar bears’ range. Such listing immediately prohibited American hunters from importing polar bears that were legally taken in Canada.
Those hunters who harvested a polar bear in Canada when it was legal to import them into the U.S. but had not yet completed the importation process prior to the listing of the bears were no longer permitted to bring their bears home.
The considerations underpinning USFW’s decision to list the polar bear as threatened are well documented by Dr. Susan Crockford in her book, “The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened.”
As reported by Dr. Crockford, the decision was based upon anticipated declines in polar bear populations resulting from predicted habitat loss due to declining sea ice. In particular, the USFWS concluded that a significant decline (as much as two-thirds) in polar bear numbers was highly likely to occur by 2050, in view of the sea ice predictions for 2050 that were made in 2005 and 2006.
According to Dr. Crockford, during the 10 years following USFW’s decision, the sea ice had already declined to levels that were predicted for 2050. Based on the sea ice predictions as well as polar bear population estimates that formed the basis for the listing decision, polar bear populations should have dramatically declined during that time frame.
However, that did not happen. Most polar bear populations appear to have increased during that period. Although the exact amount of that increase is debated, Dr. Crockford estimates that the overall population may have increased by as much as 20% using the same population estimating metrics that were used to support USFW’s decision to list the bear as threatened.
An Ocean of Ice
During the last weeks of May 2018, I found myself traveling to the small Inuit hamlet of Grise Fjord located in Nunavut, Canada, to hunt a polar bear with my bow. Grise Fjord is the northernmost public community in Canada and has a reported population of 129 residents.
After five flights and an overnight stay in Resolute Bay, I boarded the final flight into Grise Fjord. Upon arrival, I was met by a local hunt representative and taken to the only hotel in town. The “hotel” was a collection of bedrooms with a common kitchen area in the basement.
I simply found a room that was unoccupied and unpacked my gear. That evening, another hunt representative met with me to review my gear and explain how the hunt would be conducted.
The representative explained that my Inuit guide would be driving a snow machine that pulled a long sled known as a kamituk. The kamituk had a partially covered top and would be used to transport our food and camping gear.
I would sit on a small seat that was supported by a cooler located at the rear of the kamituk. Two other Inuit helpers would join us, each driving a snowmachine. One machine would pull a second sled that supported a dog sled and a dog box housing several dogs.
The other machine would pull a third sled that hauled more gear and several cans of fuel. Once a bear was located, the dogsled would be used to pursue the bear.
The next morning, we headed out onto the ice. After over a nine-hour ride on ice and snow, we pulled up to a small cabin that was built on Norwegian Bay. However, Norwegian Bay remained frozen for as far as the eye could see.
We spent the second and third nights in a wall tent. It was amazing to watch the Inuit hunters set up a wall tent on the ice and frozen ground using snow machines and jerrycans of gasoline as tie-offs for the tent cables. Although the tent was a bit crowded, it never got cold.
During the first three days of the hunt, we saw 23 bears. However, most of the bears we spotted were sows and cubs. We did see a couple of young boars, but neither of them was what we were looking for. Late on the fourth day, we found that blood-ringed hole. The bear’s tracks led out across the frozen ocean.
After a few hours of following the tracks on snow-ckovered ice, we finally spotted the bear in the distance. It was well past midnight. This far north, the sun never sets. Thankfully, a hanging fog allowed us to slowly approach the bear.
Getting into bow range of a huge polar bear can be intimidating to say the least. Our initial plan involved turning the sled dogs loose so they could bay the bear and give me a chance to get within bow range.
The plan didn’t go as intended. During the ensuing mayhem, my guide and the two helpers were able to occupy the bear’s attention long enough for me to get an arrow into him. The first arrow struck the bear a bit back, and the bear spun in a circle snapping at the arrow. This gave me a chance to get another arrow into his vitals and the bear quickly succumbed. It was 2:30 in the morning.
We quickly got to skinning the bear before it froze. It was huge. Some of the meat was fed to the dogs and the remaining meat was loaded onto the kamituk to bring back to the village.
Hunting is Conservation
Polar bear hunts generate much-needed revenue for Inuit communities. They also help those communities manage the local polar bear population around the villages.
Unfortunately, the fact that American hunters can no longer bring their bear home has dissuaded many hunters from undertaking the substantial expense and effort of a polar bear hunt. This has, in turn, reduced the related revenue streams to those Inuit villages.
Records relating to the sea ice in recent years indicate a continued decline in ice coverage. Such decline has affected the polar bears’ habitat. A major tenet of wildlife conservation relates to the “biological carrying capacity” of an animal’s habitat.
The biological carrying capacity is an equilibrium between the availability of habitat and the number of animals of a given species the habitat can support over time. When the population of the species exceeds the carrying capacity, animals can starve. In areas where animals exist alongside human populations, human-animal conflicts dramatically increase.
During the long ride back to the village, my Inuit guide commented that the sea ice was starting to soften. It was the end of May, and the temperatures were hovering above zero.
My guide was in his mid-60s and has lived in the Arctic all his life. When I questioned him about the effects of climate change on the Arctic, he said the Arctic climate has become slightly warmer over the course of his life. When asked about the bear population, he quickly responded, “There are more bears now than ever.”
He went on to tell me that the community usually had to deal with one or two problem bears each year. He also said that they can no longer camp on the ice unless they take a dog to alert them when a bear is nearby.
Hunting a polar bear in the high Arctic is one of the most adventurous hunts that a hunter can experience. Those hunts also provide Inuit communities with a welcomed revenue stream.
Additionally, they help the communities control the polar bear populations to avoid bear-human conflicts as well as keep bear numbers at a healthy level. It is in everyone’s interest to maintain a healthy population of polar bears that is in balance with the changing habitat. Unfortunately, since the polar bear was listed as threatened by USFW in 2008, it has garnered little attention from many conservation organizations and lawmakers.
Now 15 years later, it’s clear that the estimates that formed the basis for the listing were flawed. It is time for the issue to be revisited. The Inuit communities deserve it. The great white bears deserve it.
Tom Edgington is an SCI Life member from Pennsylvania.