“You get a call,” Leo Ikakhik says, sounding weary. “There’s a bear here, there’s a bear there.”
Each year as fall approaches, bringing with it polar bear migration season, the polar bear guard starts worrying.
“You can see the number going up, I’ve been seeing more bears. Every year it seems the number is not declining, it seems it’s adding every year.”
With sea ice breaking up earlier and freezing later, the bears are spending more time on land.
It leaves Ikakhik tapping his fingers on the table, thinking, “I wonder what it’s going to be like this year?”
Ikakhik is one of Arviat, Nunavut’s four bear guards, tasked with chasing away the Arctic’s top predator on his ATV or snowmobile. In the busy season, two guards are on duty at all times in the town on the edge of the Hudson Bay that sits smack in the middle of a bear migration route.
An increase in polar bear-human interactions in Canada’s north is straining the resources of towns like Arviat on the front lines. With sea ice breaking up earlier and freezing later, the bears are spending more time on land, where they are tempted into towns by open dumps and other potential food sources. There, they can pose a deadly threat to locals. That’s where Ikakhik comes in.
Ikakhik’s position is made possible thanks to funding from the World Wildlife Fund and the government of Nunavut for the town’s polar bear program. Even so, Ikakhik feels overwhelmed each fall.
When 41 bear guards from around the Hudson Bay got together in Churchill, Manitoba, in March 2016, they agreed that that interactions between humans and polar bears were increasing, with bears growing less wary of people.
“There are significant shortfalls in legislation, policies, and funding, to address concerns,” reads a report that came out of the workshop.
Most communities aren’t as well equipped as Arviat is. The community has a bear hotline, two bear traps, and deterrent measures, including solar-powered electric fences and “bear bangers”, a type of projectile that is launched and makes a loud noise to scare the animals away.
Even so, Ikakhik has had plenty of close calls.
Once when he was on the night shift in the fall of 2013, he was driving down a hill near the dump when a bear’s head popped out in front of him about five feet away. He hit the brakes and stopped right in front of the bear, almost touching it. The bear stood up, towering over him at seven feet tall. “I thought the bear was going to jump on me.”
“You’re always at risk doing this kind of work with wild animals, so you’ve got to be extra cautious.”
They stared at each other. Leo pointed his rifle at the bear, ready to shoot if it moved toward him. He didn’t want to kill the bear, but he didn’t want to get killed either. “Instead he jumped on the opposite side and the bear started running away from me.
“It’s not that easy, it’s not that simple because you’re always at risk doing this kind of work with wild animals, so you’ve got to be extra cautious, so it makes it a lot easier if you’ve got other people helping you.”
Arviat has considered building a bear jail like the one in Churchill. “We’ve thought of that, but it takes time and first you’ve got to have money,” Ikakhik says. He explains the utility of such a prison: ”Sometimes we would trap a bear or force a bear away from here, and as soon as you turn your back on them, they come right back to the spot where you tried chasing them away.”
Whale Cove, Nunavut, a small community of 400 north of Arviat, is also fighting its own bear problem — but without the support of WWF.
Lisa Jones, manager of the community’s Hunter and Trappers Organization, says there’s been an increase in the number of bears coming into Whale Cove. Every fall during migration season, they use funding from Nunavut to hire two bear guards to patrol the community using their own vehicles and rifles. But Jones says they need double the number of guards.
“It’s pretty scary,” she said. “There was one about three or four years ago, it came in and it chased a couple [teenage] girls. [The bear guards] had to put it down after they chased it.”
“The bears were in terrible condition overall.”
“There was one here last fall just near the daycare, just lying around.”
Inuit towns like Whale Cove and Arviat have a quota each year for the number of polar bears they can hunt and kill. Jones says when a bear is killed in the defense of the life or property of locals in Whale Cove, it eats into the polar bear quota for hunting. It has reached the point in Whale Cove that young people in the community aren’t able to learn to hunt the bears like they did traditionally, Jones said.
Scientists studying polar bears say the Western Hudson Bay population that Arviat and Whale Cove tangle with is declining, with one study finding the group has decreased from 1,185 in 1987 to 806 in 2011. Andrew Derocher, who has been studying polar bears for more than 30 years, was out on the Western Hudson Bay last month and described a “sea ice margarita” that doesn’t bode well for the bears or guards like Leo come fall.
“The bears were in terrible condition overall,” Derocher told VICE News in an email. “In 34 years, I’ve never seen bears in such shape at this time of year.”
Locals in Whale Cove are seeing more bears in town, so they’re pushing to be able to shoot more of them. “We’ve been asking for more quota each year, but we never get that,” Jones says.
The responsibility for wildlife management and funding of bear programs falls primarily on the provinces and territories, with World Wildlife Fund providing additional funding in Arviat, where it says funding is preventing polar bear deaths. Canada’s federal government is also working with the US, Russia, Greenland, and Norway to compile human-bear conflict data to look for trends and find the most effective deterrents to protect bears and people. That federal program doesn’t come with more funding for bear guards like Ikakhik.
Ikakhik wishes there were more bear guards in Arviat, to keep both bears and humans safe.
“When it comes to resources, dealing with problem bears seems to be an issue that’s easy to ignore until a crisis occurs,” Derocher said. “The northern communities are terribly underfunded. I don’t think there are many towns in the south that would be as tolerant of large carnivores wandering through.”
Ikakhik wishes there were more bear guards in Arviat, to keep both bears and humans safe. “It would make it a lot easier if they would hire more.”
Since Ikakhik was hired in 2010, there have been 13 defense kills of polar bears, according to the government of Nunavut. From 2010 to 2012, there were 12 defense kills. Since then, and since the polar bear guard program started, the numbers have decreased dramatically — just one polar bear was shot for defensive reasons from 2012 to 2015
Ikakhik says he’d support more resources for the program from Nunavut or the federal government.
“Whoever wants to be involved and make everybody that much safer, whoever is willing to step in, we’d really appreciate it.”