Last week, when Didji Ishalook drew a bead on a odd-looking bear walking over the still snow-covered ground near his home in a remote part of northern Canada, he knew it would be an important moment.
In the small hamlet of Arviat, as in much of the Arctic territory of Nunavut, hunting is an important subsistence activity, but also a deep-seated part of Indigenous culture. Bagging one's first bear is a big deal.
But what the 25-year-old hunter didn't know when he pulled the trigger was that it would also be a scientifically significant moment.
The bear he killed had the white fur of a polar bear. But it was smaller with the large claws and head shape of a grizzly. Experts believe the animal may be a hybrid of the two.
Known as a "pizzly" if the father is a polar bear, a "growler" if the father is a grizzly — nanurlak, in the Inuit languages — these hybrids are the result of interbreeding between the two genetically similar species.
While he cautioned that the only way to be sure is through genetic testing, Chris Servheen, who studies bears, said the animal killed by Ishalook appears to have been one of these hybrids — which may be on the rise.
"It seems like there are more and more of these recently," said the University of Montana professor. "What we see now in the Arctic is that polar bears are spending more and more time on land and getting to land earlier during their breeding season."
Polar bears are the world's largest land-based carnivores and largely hunt seal from the Arctic sea ice, which they roam for much of the year. But as temperatures in the Arctic rise — almost twice as fast as those elsewhere on the planet — sea ice is dwindling, making it harder for the bears to hunt.
This past January the ring of ice around the North Pole was the smallest it's been in that month since recording began, according to satellite measurements from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Scientists worry that the Arctic summer could be iceless within this century.
While bad news for polar bears, Servheen said that the warming climate also means that grizzlies are ranging farther north, creating more potential for the closely related animals to cross paths and interbreed. However, Servheen noted that most sightings of the apparently increasing hybrids are not verified by DNA testing.
The United States and Canada regularly clash over classifying polar bears as a species "threatened with extinction." It is difficult to get an exact count of the number of polar bears in the 19 Arctic sub-populations, and some groups may have grown in the last decades. But there is broad consensus in the scientific community that the changing climate poses a threat to the bears and the American government perennially pushes for greater protections.
In Canada, polar bears are hunted by Indigenous communities and their re-classification would outlaw the international sale of bear hides, which First Nations leaders say can be an important source of revenue for poor Arctic communities. While some green groups and animal rights activists say that the continued hunting puts added pressure on the bears, Servheen said that that's not the core problem.
"The big issue for polar bears in not native hunting, it's the reduction of ice due to increased CO2 levels," he said. "Large areas of the polar bear range are likely going to become unoccupied by polar bears and the populations are going to be dramatically reduced as the ice reduction continues."
One possible outcome of polar bears pushing south and grizzlies north is growing number of pizzlies/growlers. The two species, Servheen said, are closely related enough that they may produce fertile offspring but that the emergence of a new species is highly unlikely.
Rather, he suggested the hybrids are bad news bears.
"It is not a good thing for the future of polar bears that we see this hybridization occurring and it's not going to result in some kind of new bear that is successfully living in the Arctic," said Servheen.
Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg