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Polar Bear Ruling Worries Indigenous Alaskans

May 17, 2008

The recent ruling by U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne listing polar bears as a threatened species has indigenous Alaskans concerned they might be banned from hunting the animals they rely upon for food. 

Aalak Nayakik, a member of northern Alaska’s Inupiat peoples who have inhabited the region for centuries, says polar bears are a staple food for his family. He also uses polar bear fur for his family’s bedding.

“I like to eat bear meat almost every winter, can’t go without it,” he told Reuters.

“It is almost like taking the cow away from the white folks,” he said, as he stood on the edge of a receding ice-shelf near Barrow, 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

The Bush administration’s decision left residents of the country’s northernmost point unsure about how much their lives and customs will be altered. And Nayakik wonders if hunts will lead to sanctions or jail time. He estimates that about 20 bears are killed by authorized Inupiat hunters in the Barrow area each year.

“The Inupiat have hunted the polar bear for years, not necessarily for trophy matters but for food, and the hide itself is used for clothing materials,” Michael Stotts, Barrow’s mayor, told Reuters.

“It is considered a delicacy. It is considered an honor in the Inupiat tradition to be able to capture and have a polar bear,” he said.

Polar bears live only in the Arctic and depend on sea ice as a platform for hunting seals. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 16,000 bears, nearly two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population, could be wiped out by 2050 if the forecasts for melting sea ice are accurate.

During his announcement to list the Polar bears as threatened, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne acknowledged that greenhouse gas emissions from humans had contributed to the global warming that has damaged the bears’ habitat. 

It is something those in Barstow, a mostly native community of 4,500 people,  have witnessed themselves. 

“There is less (ice) and it’s thinner. It is not really thick like it used to be,” said Nayakik, 47, standing at the edge of the ice.

“It is going to melt right away.”

The government did not reveal any plans to address climate change or Arctic drilling for fossil fuels during its announcement to list the Polar bears as threatened.   

Throughout Barrow  there was concern that residents would carry a disproportionate share of the burden to protect the bear.

“Everyone needs to worry about it,”   Nayakik’s son Charlie, 14, told Reuters.

Jeff Corwin,  host of the television show “Animal Planet”, was in Barstow filming an episode on polar bears. He said it would be unreasonable to give Barstow’s residents sole responsibility for protecting the bear.

“These are the iconic, apex pinnacle predator of these lands,” he told Reuters.

“I don’t think one remote community can or should be saddled with responsibility for that species. It should be shared.”




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