UW News

June 4, 2018

Polar scientist Kristin Laidre documents perspectives of polar bear hunters in East Greenland

UW News

polar bear walking

A polar bear in Southeast Greenland.Kristin Laidre/University of Washington

Few people have spent as much time studying mammals in the Arctic as Kristin Laidre, a University of Washington polar scientist and expert on marine mammals.

One exception would be Inuit subsistence hunters, who for generations have relied on these mammals for nutritional, economic and cultural reasons. A new study documents the experience of these hunters and what it might show about changing conditions for polar bears on Greenland’s east coast.

map with green stars on east coast

Black boxes show the two regions where the interviews were conducted.Kristin Laidre/University of Washington

“Our research was motivated by the importance of obtaining local perspectives from subsistence hunters in East Greenland about the subpopulation of polar bears,” said Laidre, who is corresponding author on the paper. “There had not been an interview study for several decades, so a new interview survey was important to conduct, especially before starting an assessment of the subpopulation.”

She will be involved in the assessment over the coming years, which will be the first of its kind for the East Greenland polar bears.

Interviews led and conducted by the Greenland government gathered Inuit perspectives on hunting practices and management from full-time polar bear hunters, the only people allowed to hunt polar bears, in two communities along Greenland’s eastern coast. Tasiilaq is a community of about 3,000 people with 68 full-time polar bear hunters, and Ittoqqortoormiit is a community of less than 400 with 12 full-time polar bear hunters.

photograph of subsistence hunter

“Tumass, NW Greenland.” The man photographed is a polar bear subsistence hunter on Greenland’s west coast, where another of the 19 subpopulations of polar bears is found.Tiina Itkonen

Questions covered hunting strategies and the effects of polar bear subsistence quotas introduced in 2006. The scientific aim was to gain an understanding of how climate change is affecting the polar bear subsistence hunt, and to document observed changes in polar bear distribution, numbers and biology over the past two decades.

A local partner interviewed 25 hunters, all men between the ages of 20 and 64, between December 2014 and March 2015. The interviews conducted in Greenlandic were conversational in nature, lasted about two hours on average, and were mostly held in people’s homes.

The last such survey in eastern Greenland was conducted in the 1990s. Other places, including Greenland’s west coast and the Canadian Arctic, have had more recent interview surveys.

Results of the East Greenland survey, when compared with similar questions in the 1990s, show that the hunt has shifted from being done from land to being done from boats, coinciding with reports that the ice-covered routes are becoming more treacherous.

Other results, recently published in Frontiers in Marine Science, show that the hunt is happening earlier in the year than it did in the 1990s, with fewer people hunting in the summer months. About 80 percent of hunters in both communities also reported that polar bears are entering communities more often than in the past. Some hunters believed that there were more polar bears because of the quotas introduced in 2006, while others reported that the loss of sea ice is encouraging polar bears to stay closer to shore.

“Subsistence hunters provide an important perspective on the system that needs to be documented and included in the conservation and management of polar bears,” Laidre said.

Co-authors on the paper are Allison Northey at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory and Fernando Ugarte at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. The research was funded by the Danish Ministry of Environment.

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For more information, contact Laidre at klaidre@uw.edu.

Adapted from a press release by Frontiers in Marine Ecology.

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