White Bear Takes Center Stage in Climate Drama

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AP Special Correspondent TUKTOYAKTUK, Northwest Territories—Henry Jr. slept in the arms of his father the unhappy hunter, who pondered the future of the boy born last Arctic winter, in the depths of a polar bear season he'd rather forget.

"It's too late to be a hunter. I don't want him to do that," Henry Nasogaluak said of his son. "It's a hard life, and it got harder with the ban by the United States."

Baby Henry may not grow up to spend his life on the ice, with gun and dog team. But the white bear itself, ancient prey of his Inuvialuit people, seems destined to spend the coming decades as a target in 21st-century debates over what to do as the world warms.

It's a story whose latest chapter will take the Inuvialuit, the Inuit of this remote Canadian coast, from the familiar frozen vastness of their northern sea to the confines of a Washington, D.C., courtroom, where they're contesting a U.S. ban on imports of polar-bearskin rugs.

That 2008 ban has wrecked an estimated $3-million-a-year business in which Canadian Inuit guides took American sportsmen on the big-game trophy hunt of their lifetimes, at rates of $20,000 to $30,000 for a two-week dogsled trek in quest of their own half-ton "ice bear."

Now blocked from bringing the skins home to adorn their dens, the southern hunters aren't coming north. Last season, Nasogaluak got no takers for his "tags," a three-bear quota that had helped him earn up to $40,000 a year.

"It's just like I got fired out of my job. No compensation, no nothing," he told a visitor to his small wood-frame home in this seaside hamlet. "When you're 61 years old, you can't do anything else, because I don't know how to work any other job, because that was my job for over 40 years."

Further chapters in the polar bear story may unfold in the coming months, as northern nations consider how to protect an animal whose world is melting around it.

The Canadian government must decide whether to declare the bear a species at risk, as Ontario and Manitoba provinces and the U.S. government have done. American wildlife activists, meanwhile, say they will push next year to end the international trade in polar-bear parts under the global treaty banning commerce in endangered species.

That trade appears lucrative. One Canadian Web site offers "Worldwide Shipping!" for 7-foot and 8-foot (2 1/2-meter) polar-bearskin rugs priced at $7,995 and $8,995.

The fearsome white bear, the world's largest land meat-eater, "nanuq" to the Inuit, may be uniquely susceptible to climate change as rising temperatures fast shrink its habitat, the Arctic sea ice.

Many bears spend their whole lives on the ice, mating, giving birth and hunting for their main prey, the ringed seal. But Arctic summers may be almost free of sea ice within 30 years, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted last April.

Because of the harsh conditions, the remoteness and the long distances the bears travel, biologists cannot easily pin down trends in the species population.

"We're struggling with this in the polar bear research world because we can't be out there constantly doing polar bear estimates," Marsha Branigan, a wildlife specialist with the Northwest Territories government, said in an interview in the Inuvialuit regional center of Inuvik.

This July, however, a global authority reached some conclusions about the species, believed to number 20,000 to 25,000 around the north, through Alaska, the Eurasian Arctic, Greenland and, mostly, northernmost Canada.

In its first assessment since 2005, the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that eight of the 19 bear subpopulations are in decline. Too little was known about seven other subgroups to make a judgment, it said.

Paradoxically, although scientists have documented a 25 percent decline in numbers around Hudson Bay, Inuit there and elsewhere in eastern Canada and in Greenland report seeing more bears.

Erik Born, Danish chairman of the IUCN polar bear group, said he believes "they see more polar bears because the polar bears have changed their distribution" — that is, more swim ashore in those areas as springtime ice grows scarcer, despite the fact there's little food for them on land.