Prior to European arrival the Inuit in Canada hunted polar bears for subsistence purposes: bears provided food and fur. A large bear could provide 200 kg of meat, and its skin became clothes and sleeping pads that protected people from wind and extremely low temperatures. After the Second World War, interest in polar bear hides increased and their sale became an important economic by-product of hunting, providing some income to Inuit hunters and communities. Today, most of the polar bear hunting in Canada is for commercial purposes, exporting polar bear skins to a growing international market.

Copyright: Polar Bears & Humans project / Ole J LioddenOverall polar bear hunting statistics for Canadian provinces and territories from 1963–2016. Dashed lines and grey numbers are estimates. See the Polar Bears & Humans book for source references and more details.

Hunting quotas
In the 1960s international concerns about unsustainable hunting motivated the government of the NWT to respond. The NWT introduced polar bear hunting quotas in 1967 for each of its settlements, including at that time the entire Nunavut territory. Based on average hunting activity per settlement over the previous three years, and then adjusted slightly lower, the quotas were put in place to manage total allowed hunting activity and avoid a complete ban on all polar bear hunting in Canada. The total quota was set to 383 polar bears for the first year, but it increased to 442 bears in 1973 and to 522 bears in 2014.

Some authors described the primary reason for establishing hunting quotas in 1967 as a managerial response to the rapid rise in the number of polar bears being killed, and overhunting. However, the first report (Kwaterowsky, 1967). stated that the quota system had been ‘designed so that a complete closure of polar bear hunting can be avoided in future years’. Indeed, the government was more concerned about ensuring ‘a continued harvest of polar bears and thus the welfare of the Eskimo people’ (Kwaterowsky, 1967) than overhunting or other challenges of polar bear management. The quota system was thus a way mainly to convince the world that the Canadian government cared about polar bears’ welfare and managed them appropriately with no further conservation actions needed.

One cornerstone of Canadian polar bear management has been that hunting quotas require at least two-thirds of killed bears to be male. This type of management maximises hunting activity by conserving the female bears that give birth to the next generation of polar bears. However, such sex-selective hunting may have long-term negative effects on populations with limited numbers of large males.

Overall polar bear hunting in Canada
Both official statistics and the 1960s estimates derived from reported hunting activity showed that Canadian polar bear hunters killed about 30,340 bears from 1963-2016. Hunters from Nunavut killed 76% of those bears, NWT hunters killed 11%, Québec hunters killed 8% and hunters from Manitoba, Ontario, Labrador and Yukon killed the rest. Annual polar bear hunting activity in Canada ranged from 415 to 698 reported kills per year.

With the new hunting quota of 1967 applied to most areas of Canada, cumulative hunting activity dropped below 500 kills over the following five years. But beginning in 1972, hunting activity increased again to a five-year average of 542.0 kills, as shown in the figure above. Moreover, in anticipation of the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, Canadian polar bear hunters killed more than 600 bears in 1973 just before it was signed. Overall, the new quota system of 1967 had a short-lived tempering effect in Canada, and hunting activity increased throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Polar bear hunting activity peaked with nearly 700 polar bears killed in each of 1981, 1982 and 1983, mainly because of record-high hunting activity in both Nunavut and the NWT. However, because the total allowed quota through the 1980s was high, unsustainable hunting and overhunting were not of concern. As long as the actual numbers of killed polar bears were within or near the allowed quota, polar bear management was considered ‘successful’.

From 1982–86 Canadian hunters killed an annual average of 663.6 polar bears. The five-year averages just prior to and after this peak were also high, at about 625 annual kills. These periods of overhunting resulted in population declines in some of the subpopulations, yet the recently established trophy hunting industry resulted in high quotas and selective hunting for the largest polar bears. However, the unsustainable hunting activity could not continue, and in the beginning of the 1990s the first effects of overhunting became clear.

Overhunting and selective hunting in the Viscount Melville Sound area during the 1980s and early 1990s forced the government to ban all polar bear hunting activity there from 1995–99. The population of polar bears in the area had been decimated, and most of the large males were gone. A similar situation occurred a few years later in the neighbouring subpopulation of M’Clintock Channel, and a three-year hunting moratorium took effect there from 2002–04.

Given increased awareness about overhunting and the depleted polar bear populations in parts of Arctic Canada, both the hunting quotas and overall hunting activity dropped to around 500 bears killed annually in Canada in the mid-1990s. Though reduced, the hunting activity was still higher than after the quota system began in 1967, and in 2005 polar bear hunting activity increased once more. Boosted by high skin prices and more local management of polar bears in Nunavut, polar bear hunting activity in Canada peaked again with 660 bears killed in 2011 and 671 killed in 2012. This extensive hunting activity was only slightly lower than the highest peak years, including 1980–84 and 1989, as illustrated in the figure above. Few researchers talked about overhunting, and the commercial polar bear skin industry continued as usual.

Increased polar bear hunting activity in Québec contributed significantly to the peaks in overall Canadian hunting activity after 2010. Québec’s unregulated activity, given its lack of a mandatory quota, resulted in 101 reported kills and an unknown number of unreported, but still legal, kills. Booming skin prices may have explained most of the increased polar bear hunting activity along the Québec coast.

In 2011 Inukjuak in the Québec part of the Southern Hudson Bay area had the highest annual kill number – 71 polar bears – of all Canadian settlements from 2006–16. Another highly active settlement from Québec was Quaqtaq in Davis Strait, which had the highest hunting activity of all Canadian settlements in 2014. Again, without any mandatory quota system or strict hunting regulations, hunters in Québec could kill large numbers of polar bears when skin prices were high or when hunting conditions were favourable.

Historically, the most active polar bear hunters in Canada were based out of the settlements of Coral Harbour, in the Foxe Basin area, Clyde River, in the Baffin Bay area, and Resolute, in the Lancaster Sound area. From 2006-16 those hunters alone killed 1,227 polar bears. Of all Canadian settlements, Coral Harbour had the highest annual hunting activity from 1973-2016, including 90 kills in 1979 and 86 in 1988.

Copyright: Polar Bears & Humans project / Ole J LioddenRegistered illegal polar bear kills in Nunavut and the NWT, 1969-2016. See the Polar Bears & Humans book for source references and more details.

Illegal polar bear hunting in Canada
Illegal polar bear hunting in Canada is not well documented and is usually described as ‘extremely rare’. However, official hunting statistics from the NWT and Nunavut from 1969–2016 indicate that illegal hunting occurs almost every year.

The definition of illegal polar bear hunting in Canada is not very clear, mainly because of differences between laws and regulations of various units of management. For example, the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement clearly gives indigenous hunters in Québec the right to kill polar bears, and it requires no mandatory reports of kills, except from those who want to sell the skins. Such unregulated hunting is legal by definition, no matter how many polar bears a hunter kills. Therefore, even the 71 polar bears killed around the settlement of Inukjuak in 2010 were killed legally.

Another problem with illegal hunting statistics is the fine line between illegal kills and DLP (Defence of Life or Property) kills. An approaching polar bear may be killed in defence of human safety or property, but no one is mandated to try to deter the bear before killing it. Furthermore, proving the bear had not threatened or jeopardised human safety or property before it was killed would be very difficult, if not impossible.

Most of the polar bear hunting territories in Arctic Canada are very remote and difficult for law enforcement authorities to monitor. Hunters may therefore be tempted to not report illegal polar bear kills that occur far from any settlements, where no one will find traces of the carcass. Such unreported illegal kills most likely occur, but they are not tracked by any official statistics. However, hunters who kill polar bears illegally may have problems trying to sell the skins or meat; without an attached fur tag a polar bear is considered illegal and cannot be exported.

From 1969–2016 statistics for Nunavut and the NWT reported 212 polar bear kills as illegal. Of the 211 poached bears, 194 were from Nunavut and 17 were from the NWT, as the figure above illustrates. Illegal polar bear hunting activity peaked in 1994 with 22 bears, three of which were poached in the NWT, and the remaining 19 bears were poached in Nunavut. The next highest number of reported illegal kills was 13, in both 1995 and 2013, and all but one occurred in Nunavut. Overall, from 1969–2016 poachers killed an annual average of 4.0 polar bears in Nunavut and 0.4 bears in the NWT.

Protected areas in Canada
Established in 1996, the Wapusk National Park, Manitoba, provides Churchill polar bears with habitat protection that safeguards the majority of the maternity denning areas in the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation area. Additionally, in February 2008 the polar bears in Manitoba were designated as threatened under the province’s Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act. This provides the polar bears with further protection by the Wildlife Act, which states, ‘No person shall hunt, trap, kill or capture’ wild animals under its protection. Accordingly, all polar bears killed in Manitoba since 2008 have been identified as ‘problem bears’ or as bears killed when handled by researchers.

The Ontario Endangered Species Act, which became law in 2008, also listed polar bears as a threatened species, entitling them to species and habitat protection starting 10 September 2009. Accordingly, polar bears may not be killed, harmed or harassed, nor may their habitat be damaged or destroyed. However, in accordance with Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution Act, 1982, Ontario recognises and affirms the existing indigenous and treaty rights of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, including activities such as polar bear hunting for subsistence, social and ceremonial purposes.

Learn more about polar bears
The information on this webpage is from Chapter 2.2 in the Polar Bears & Humans book. If you want to learn more about polar bears and conservation, order a copy of the book, and support the Polar Bears & Humans project.