In 1968 the Northwest Territories (NWT) Game Ordinance allowed Inuit-guided trophy hunting in Arctic Canada. Simultaneously, Alaskan trophy hunting activity peaked, as did a growing public opinion in the US against it. In Canada the situation was different: starting January 1970, if using traditional hunting methods, polar bear trophy hunting in Arctic Canada was allowed. Polar bear hunting permits referred to as ‘tags’ for trophy hunting had to be allocated from each settlement’s total hunting quota, and local hunters could not reuse trophy hunters’ unused tags.

In late 1973 Canada, Norway, Denmark, the US and Russia – at that time the Soviet Union – signed the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, sometimes called the ‘Polar Bear Treaty’. All Arctic countries except Canada used this agreement to ban polar bear trophy hunting. Canada held a different view, claiming it wanted to “balance” conservation goals with the socioeconomic and cultural needs of its Inuit citizens. As a result, the Canadian Inuit secured the right in the Polar Bear Treaty to assign part of their annual quota to non-Inuit sport hunters. In contrast, native hunters in Alaska and Greenland could only kill polar bears for subsistence purposes, and in Norway and Russia all polar bear hunting activity was banned.

Copyright: Polar Bears & Humans project / Ole J LioddenPolar bear trophy hunting statistics for Alaska, Svalbard and Canada, 1963-2016. See the Polar Bears & Humans book for source references and more details.

Initially, Canadian Inuit did not respond much to their new legal right to trophy hunting. Indeed, from 1970–79 trophy hunters in the NWT and Nunavut killed only 39 polar bears, as illustrated in the figure above. One reason for their low trophy hunting activity was the logistical challenge involved. Very few settlements in the Canadian Arctic had reliable access to aerial transportation before the mid-1980s, making it difficult for trophy hunters and tourists to visit these remote areas. One exception was the Mackenzie River Delta area of the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation area. The booming oil and gas activities in that area had improved local transportation services, offering more stable, frequent flights.

In 1983 a Council Directive from the European Commission referred to as the Seal Pups Directive went into effect, banning the killing of white seal pups. The intention of this ban on the importation, trade and marketing of seal products derived from seal pups was to stop the inhumane industrial hunting. However, the Seal Pups Directive contributing to the near-destruction of the entire sealing industry. To reduce the impact of the seal skin market collapse, Canadian government authorities included polar bear trophy hunting in the definition of tourism. The idea was to boost the local economies of Inuit settlements with trophy hunting to compensate for reduced income from seal skins. Polar bears were about to become a commercialised resource in Arctic Canada.

In 1994 international trophy hunting organisations successfully lobbied for a change to the US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) that would allow the importation of previously banned, polar bear trophies into the US from five subpopulations in Canada. One of the conditions for this reopening was that each allowed subpopulation area had to provide documentation of sustainable hunting. Because of the modification to the MMPA, polar bear trophy kills in Canada increased from 35 trophy bears in 1993 to 88 bears in 1995, as illustrated in the figure above.

In 2008 the US Fish & Wildlife Service listed polar bears as a threatened species under the US Endangered Species Act, given concerns that climate change would place polar bears at risk of extinction. The listing resulted in a new ban on all importation of polar bear trophies from Canada. Polar bear trophy hunting in Canada all but collapsed, going from a 143-bear peak in 2007 to 39 bears in 2009. At that point the Canadian polar bear trophy hunting industry resembled that of the early 1980s.

Copyright: Polar Bears & Humans project / Ole J LioddenPolar bear trophy hunting statistics for the Lancaster Sound area, 1970-2016. See the Polar Bears & Humans book for source references and more details.

Most active trophy hunting area in Canada
Lancaster Sound has been the most active area for polar bear trophy hunting in Canada. Most trophy hunters in this area were based out of Resolute, killing 391 trophy bears from 1982–2016, as illustrated in the figure above. The settlement of Grise Fiord hosted 176 successful polar bear trophy hunts during the same period, and Arctic Bay hosted 175. Additionally, Igloolik trophy hunters claimed one bear in 1995 and Taloyoak trophy hunters claimed one bear in 1999, as illustrated by the ‘Others’ category in figure above.

Trophy hunting peaked in the Lancaster Sound area from 2004–07, with an average of 35.8 trophy bears killed each of those years. However, after the US import ban on trophies in 2008, the number of trophy kills decreased rapidly. Overall, following a slow start in 1971, trophy hunters in the Lancaster Sound area killed a total of 744 bears through 2016, comprising 32.7% of all polar bear trophy kills in Canada from 1970–2016.

Overall Canadian trophy hunting
Detailed Canadian trophy hunting statistics for the NWT and Nunavut show an overall total of 2,274 recorded kills from 1970–2016 (see the Polar Bears & Humans book for more details). The most active participants in the industry were Resolute, with 392 total trophy kills, Coral Harbour, with 231 total kills, and Grise Fiord, with 216 total kills. From 1970–2016 Arctic Bay, Clyde River and Pond Inlet of Nunavut, and Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour, Tuktoyaktuk and Ulukhaktok of the NWT, each guided more than 100 successful polar bear trophy hunts. Fourteen settlements offered between ten and 100 trophy hunts, and the remaining six communities in Nunavut allocated ten or fewer trophy kills from their quotas.

In all, 23 of 25 settlements in Nunavut took advantage of the opportunities the polar bear trophy hunting industry offered, but only eight of those settlements provided guided trophy hunting recently, from 2010–16. Four of the five NWT settlements that offered trophy hunting, starting in 1970, still did so in 2010-16, but at a much lower rate compared with the earlier years. Some publications have described trophy hunting as an important income source for remote Inuit settlements. If trophy hunting were truly lucrative, why have so many settlements withdrawn from the industry? One must wonder whether settlements earn enough money from this activity, and whether ethical or cultural concerns have slowed further development of the trophy hunting industry in Canada.

The settlements that still participated in the polar bear trophy hunting industry in 2016 were Coral Harbour, Resolute, Grise Fiord, Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet, Clyde River, Igloolik and Hall Beach of Nunavut, as well as Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour, Tuktoyaktuk and Ulukhaktok of the NWT. Some of these settlements have their own outfitters, and thus receive more of the potential benefit from leading trophy hunting expeditions. The most successful trophy hunting providers also have large polar bear quotas and few citizens, making it easier to allocate hunting tags to foreign hunters.

Learn more about polar bears
The information on this webpage is from Chapter 4.2 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.