OTTAWA - They went toe-to-toe with the Taliban in the dusty laneways of Kandahar without batting an eye, but it's the mighty polar bear that's giving the Canadian army pause for thought.
The military had been on the lookout for an "anti-predator weapon" with which to equip both Arctic Rangers and regular force units whenever they operate on their own in the North.
In the meantime, it has issued First World War vintage Lee-Enfield rifles to units based in southern Canada for use whenever those northern response companies are dispatched to the Arctic.
The issue of "protection from predators (polar bears) was brought forward" at a meeting last year in Resolute, Nunavut, where the military was discussing what kinds of equipment it needs to operate in the remote, unforgiving terrain.
"Army tasks for now include presence (sovereignty), support to the population (disasters, etc.), recovery (MAJAD, downed satellites, SAR assistance, etc.)," said a Sept. 14, 2011 briefing note prepared for the head of the army, Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin.
"Although the norm is for our personnel to work closely with Rangers, the possibility exists of operating for a brief period without their close support."
The roughly 4,700 Rangers — sprinkled in 178 communities across the North — are the backbone of the military's presence in the region.
They conduct patrols across the vast frozen wasteland and are equipped with Lee-Enfields, bolt-action, magazine-fed rifles that were standard issue during the first half of the 20th century.
The army has been trying to replace them for years because there are so few manufacturers left who make spare parts for the rifles, first introduced to the British Army in 1895.
The fact that they don't freeze up or jam in the Arctic is part of their charm, so the army made the decision last year to equip regular force units conducting operations in the North with Lee-Enfields until replacement weapons arrive, possibly next year.
The weapons the Rangers are using were purchased in the 1950s.
Public Works put out a tender last fall for 10,000 replacement rifles, but defence industry sources said Friday that the program has been held up over concern about who holds the design rights on certain weapons.
The military's skittishness about polar bears is justified, said northern outfitter Ryan St. John, who runs Henik Lake Adventures, a popular wilderness tour outside Arviat, Nunavut.
The beasts are powerful and unpredictable, with fur-covered paws that make them remarkably quick and quiet, said St. John, a 20-year veteran of hunting in the north.
"For the size of animal it is, they are really stealthy and you just have to be on guard all of the time," St. John said by phone from his Nunavut office.
"They can cover a lot of ground in just a few seconds and you've got to be ready to take action quickly."
However, St. John said he's not sure the army needs a special "anti-predator weapon," since polar bears can be frightened off with other, non-lethal means.
"We've never had to kill a bear in our hunting camps for defensive purposes," he said. "We've always been able to chase them away with (12-gauge shotgun) cracker shells and rubber bullets. That seems to work just fine."
The Canadian Arctic is home to two-thirds of the world's remaining polar bear population and some U.S. conservation groups, according to published reports last month, are pushing Washington to ban the trade in polar bear parts and to upgrade the animal's status on the endangered species list.
Canada is the only country that permits a commercial polar bear hunt.