08/05/2011 11:36 EDT | Updated 10/05/2011 05:12 EDT

Polar bears could become extinct in Nunavut -- on licence plates

IQALUIT, Nunavut - Polar bears could soon become extinct in Canada's Eastern Arctic — on licence plates.

The government of Nunavut has announced a design contest to replace them because it is no longer able to issue the distinctive bear-shaped plates that have adorned the backs of vehicles in the territory since it was created 12 years ago.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for someone to become famous," said Nunavut Transportation Minister Peter Taptuna.

The territory's decision to abandon the bear dates back to its separation from the old Northwest Territories in 1999.

At the time, both the N.W.T. and the new jurisdiction of Nunavut wanted to keep the popular plate. It had been associated with the N.W.T. since 1971. But Nunavut argued that it had a stronger claim to the design, since most polar bears live on its side of the boundary.

In the end, the two governments agreed to share the design — but the copyright remained with the western territory.

"We let them use it," said Earl Blacklock of the N.W.T. Transportation Department.

Last year, the company that manufactures the plates informed the N.W.T. that the dies used to stamp them from sheet metal were worn and would have to be replaced. The territory took the opportunity to update its licence design by slightly changing the shape of the bear and increasing its reflectivity. The new plates were first issued last summer.

However, the N.W.T. is keeping the new design to itself and Nunavut has decided to come up with something new as well.

That doesn't mean Nunavut's few dozen kilometres of road will see the same rectangles as everywhere else in Canada.

"Our polar bear licence plate was very popular because of its shape," said Taptuna. "This new licence plate could take on a unique shape as well."

The winner will receive $1,500. The contest ends Aug. 26.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton