Most polar bear hunting occurs on the sea ice edge, which moves with the wind and currents (12). Traditionally, Inuit and other native peoples have used polar bears for clothing, sleeping skins, blankets, and food, as well as other less common and more regional uses, such as using the fur for brushes (15). However polar bears, and the hunting of them, have also played a large role in the spiritual and cultural lives of these people (15).
Polar bears have been used by native arctic peoples as a status symbol, spiritual guardian, character of myth and legend, and the subject of ritual and taboo, as well as for food and clothing (7; 15). The polar bear, or nanuq to the Inuit, also has supreme importance in Inuit culture and was considered equal with humans, in terms of predation, until the introduction of firearms (7). Besides the importance of the bears themselves, there is great cultural significance attached to the polar bear hunt.
As the populations of human settlements in the arctic are increasing, the native peoples’ isolation from the rest of the world is decreasing (12). In this time of growing contact with the rest of the world, polar bear hunting has become important as a means of forming and maintaining a cultural identity, and sustaining kinship ties within families, in Greenland, Canada, and elsewhere (7; 12). Many hunters enter the profession as a way of asserting themselves as a native person, be it Inuit (Canada), Inupiat (Alaska), or Kalaallit (Greenland), and supporting traditional values (7; 12). Part of being a native person in these societies is spending time outside the community, usually on a prolonged hunt, and while utilizing specialized skills (7). In Greenland, for instance, there is great prestige attached to hunting polar bears far away from home, meaning that those who undertake this activity must go far from family and friends, and must stay away for weeks to months, since it takes a long time to track and kill a polar bear (12). During this time, the hunters rely only on their own knowledge and skills to survive and have a successful, hunt, and find the experience one that helps define who they are (12). Thus, polar bear hunting helps maintain cultural heritage in a way that cannot be duplicated by anything else (7).
In Canada, even though much of the polar bear hunting is done as guides to non-natives for sport, it still helps maintain Inuit culture, since guides must maintain and pass on their knowledge of arctic survival, travel, polar bear tracking and killing, and other traditional activities (6; 7). Guides possess extraordinary skills, including determining when a track was made, and the size and sex of the bear that made it, as well as controlling a team of sled dogs, and responding appropriately to sudden weather changes (7). Continuing to hunt polar bears also allows for the transfer of these skills from generation to generation, as younger people work as helpers to the guides, and thus learn how to hunt themselves (7). The guided hunts also provide an invaluable look for outsiders into the way of life of native arctic peoples, as well as an incomparable experience, both of which help keep the Inuit way of life in existence, since the hunters gain an appreciation for Inuit culture (7). The guided hunts also allow for an exchange of world views, news, knowledge, insight, and gifts between “southerners” and Inuit people, and thus help bridge the two societies (7).
Hunters in the settlement of Itilleq, Greenland and their recent kill (O).
In 1973, representatives from five arctic countries that had polar bear populations (the United States (whose bears are in Alaska), Canada, Denmark (whose bears are in Greenland), Russia, and Norway) signed the International Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears and their Habitat (1). This agreement, among other things, protects polar bear habitat, especially that where denning occurs, and prohibits the use of aircraft and large motorized vessels for polar bear hunting (dog sleds must be used instead), as well as limiting what bears can be taken, when, and by whom (1). The agreement specifically protects female polar bears with cubs, and prohibits hunting in denning areas, in an effort to maintain a stable population (1). However, if a female bear with cubs is perceived to be a threat to human life or property, she and the cubs may all legally be killed (or sent to a zoo), though usually this is done only by wildlife officers and not by local hunters (5). The agreement has also led most nations to place a significant amount of crucial polar bear habitat under some kind of protection, mainly in national parks and nature reserves, which has larger ecological benefits that just for polar bears, since other animals utilize this same habitat (1).
The agreement does not prohibit all hunting, leaving that decision up to individual countries, and maintains that native peoples have the right to take polar bears for traditional uses, or to shoot them in defense of life and property (1;5). In short, the agreement restricts polar bear hunting, while still maintaining that native people of the region have the right to use polar bears to support their traditional ways of life, and also make a living off the polar bears if possible (1; 6; 12). Furthermore, this agreement is reviewed and updated periodically, with the cooperation of native and government representatives from all the nations who signed it (1).
The full agreement can be accessed here: International Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears and their Habitat.
Country Specific Hunting Regulations
In Greenland, one must be a permanent resident to hunt polar bears, and there is a ban on the use of semi or fully automatic rifles and shotguns to do so (12). In Norway and Russia, all polar bear hunting is illegal, due to severely depleted populations and the perceived inability to effectively regulate take (7). In Alaska, however, bears can be hunted by native peoples for subsistence, clothing, and handicrafts, but products cannot be sold due to the recent listing by the United States of the bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (1; 7; 13) In Canada, native people can hunt bears for their own purposes, plus act as guides to trophy hunters (1). It is noteworthy, and discussed in more detail on the Conservation Hunting Page, that Canada is the only country that allows the guided recreational hunting of polar bears (7; 13).
The skin of a polar bear being prepared by an Inuit hunter in Canada (P).
The coat of arm of Greenland, featuring a polar bear, emphasizes the crucial role the bears have in the lives of arctic people (N).
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