10/15/2014 12:31 EDT | Updated 12/15/2014 05:59 EST

Hunt quotas cut for southern population of polar bears

Inuit and Cree hunters have agreed to slash their polar bear quotas for Canada's southernmost population of the mighty Arctic predator.

Scientists say the old allowable harvest of 60 bears in the southern Hudson Bay region was unsustainable. But Inuit say they agreed to cut their hunt back to 45 mostly over fears of an international backlash against Canada's management policy.

"We keep saying there's too many bears out there but the biologists don't seem to understand that," said Paul Irngaut of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the group that administers the Nunavut land claim.

He said hunters feared that if they hadn't agreed to reduce the southern Hudson Bay hunt, Environment Canada would ban the export of skins from those particular bears in an effort to prevent the entire trade from being forbidden.

The last two meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species saw U.S.-led initiatives to ban exports and imports of polar bear parts. Another such attempt is expected at the group's next meeting in 2016.

Scientists say there are about 900 polar bears in the population living in northern Quebec, Ontario and southern Nunavut. That number has been stable for years.

But polar bear biologist Andrew Derocher at the University of Alberta said as climate change melts sea ice the bears use as seal-hunting platforms, their health is deteriorating.

"The bears get in poorer condition over time. They get a bit smaller. Then what you tend to see is reproduction and survival rates tend to decline. Then the population declines.

"There's no indication right now (this) population is in serious jeopardy. But the concerns we have is that nobody that I was aware of thought that a harvest of 60 bears was even remotely sustainable."

Inuit hunters have long disagreed with biologists on whether bear numbers in this region and others in the Arctic are in decline.

"It's completely opposite to what Inuit have been saying and seeing on the land," said Irngaut.

Population counts can be controversial because polar bear surveys are expensive to mount and conducted infrequently. When they are done, the bears are hard to spot.

Derocher welcomed news the southern Hudson Bay hunt is to shrink by 25 per cent. But even that reduced quota may still be too high, he said.

"Do we have the monitoring in place to assess the population age structure and the recruitment and reproductive rates? I would argue we do not."

The current quota is to remain in place until 2016.

On average, about 500 polar bears are hunted every year in Canada. About two-thirds of the world's 20,000 to 25,000 bears live in 13 population groups in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.