IQALUIT, Nunavut - Nunavut says a new survey shows Canada's polar bear population hasn't significantly declined in the last seven years as predicted and that the iconic mammal has not been hurt by climate change.
An aerial survey done in August by the Nunavut government, in response to pressure from Inuit, estimated the western Hudson Bay bear population at around 1,000.
That's about the same number of bears found in a more detailed study done in 2004. That study, which physically tagged the bears, predicted the number would decline to about 650 by 2011.
Last year's survey found fewer cubs — about 50 — than in previous years, but officials say the new figures show the "doom-and-gloom" predictions of environmentalists about the demise of the polar bear have failed to come true.
"People have tried to use the polar bear as a bit of a poster child — it's a beautiful animal and it grabs the attention of the public — to make people aware of the impact of climate change," said Drikus Gissing, Nunavut's director of wildlife management.
"We are not observing these impacts right at this moment in time. And it is not a crisis situation as a lot of people would like the world to believe it is."
Environmentalists have warned the bears are under serious threat as climate change melts the sea ice, giving the animals less time to bulk up on fatty seal meat. Canada is home to about two-thirds of the world's polar bears, but environmental experts say climate change could make the Hudson Bay population extinct within a few decades.
Inuit hunters have insisted the population is healthy. They say they are seeing more polar bears and say they aren't as emaciated or in the poor condition scientist suggest.
Gissing said this latest survey shows the bears are doing well, despite being hunted, and it may be time to re-evaluate the restrictions placed on the polar bear harvest.
"The population was continually harvested since 2004," he said. "A lot of animals have been removed from that population ... so that should have resulted in a much steeper decline than the one that was predicted in 2004."
But some environmentalists say this aerial survey is just one piece of the puzzle. Peter Ewins, director of species conservation at World Wildlife Fund Canada, said there are other signs the polar bear population is suffering due to climate change.
Hudson Bay polar bears have lost about six weeks of hunting time on the winter ice due to climate change because the freeze often doesn't come until late November and the ice thaws earlier in the spring. With less time to hunt seals, Ewins said he has seen the deteriorating condition of the bears first-hand on many research trips to the North.
When the survival rate of polar bears, the health and number of cubs and their fat score are considered, Ewins said, everything points to a population in trouble.
"The science facts — whether you are looking at trends in population, trends in survival, body condition — they're all showing troubling declining trends reflecting energy and habitat changes for polar bears," Ewins said.
Ewins said he's waiting to see the figures from a more detailed population study that actually physically tags the mammals. He said that survey better reflects the state of the bear population and will allow for an "apples-to-apples" comparison with the 2004 study.
The Nunavut government said the aerial study is an accurate reflection of the population. The survey was conducted during the summer when the bears were confined to land and were easily observable, officials said. The survey covered about 8,000 kilometres along the coastline of Manitoba and Nunavut, as well as inland and offshore islands of western Hudson Bay.
— By Chinta Puxley in Winnipeg