OTTAWA – Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq has fired up a Twitter storm after posting a picture of a dead polar bear and downplaying scientific concern about threats to the survival of the iconic species.
“Enjoy!!” wrote Aglukkaq on her Twitter page as she reposted the photo of the dead animal, setting the stage for a community feast in Arctic Bay.
The comments prompted a flurry of mixed messages of support and criticism: praise from people supporting the polar bear hunt as a northern cultural tradition; and complaints from those saying Aglukkaq was part of a government supporting fossil fuel expansion that is contributing to global warming and melting ice that threatens the species.
“Man those endangered species are tasty,” wrote one Twitter user, named Paul Smith, among the more critical commentators.
“I grew up in the north. Why take and post the picture?” asked another Twitter user named Brian Watters. “To what gain other than to shock? Keep it private.”
“Peoples in the north don’t have the luxury of going to the grocery store,” wrote Paul Oster.
“I will continue to stand up for Inuit and Northern communities who rely on the polar bear hunt,” Aglukkaq wrote on Twitter in response to some of the criticism. “Polar Bears are culturally, spiritually and economically important for northerners.”
Aglukkaq raised the eyebrows of scientists in October after downplaying evidence of global warming, and suggesting the species was in good shape because her brother was observing more polar bears in his northern community.
“A lot of time, scientists latch on to the wildlife in the North, to state their case that climate change is happening and the polar bears will disappear and whatnot,” Aglukkaq told the Globe and Mail. “But people on the ground will say the polar bear population is quite healthy. You know, in these regions, the population has increased, in fact. Why are you [saying it’s] decreasing? So the debate on that … My brother is a full-time hunter who will tell you polar bear populations have increased and scientists are wrong.”
“I think that she’s really not embracing the science and to sort of put up her brother as the counterpoint to 40 years of research is disingenuous in terms of trying to represent the science on polar bears in a global context,” said Andrew Derocher, a professor of biological sciences from the University of Alberta, who focuses on polar bear research.
“She is misinformed with respect to what scientists are saying,” said Derocher. “As lead in the Arctic Council, it’s very unfortunate (to see this) at a time when we ought to be relying on scientists to understand the changes that are going on. It seems that Canada is moving backwards in time.”
Aglukkaq’s office declined to respond in October when Postmedia asked whether she received a briefing from Environment Canada scientists on the status of the species, which is listed as being of special concern by the federal government.
Friday, Aglukkaq sent Postmedia News a statement saying that polar bear management and the Inuit hunt in Canada were conducted based on science as well as traditional Inuit knowledge.
“Why shouldn’t a young Inuk man celebrate catching a polar bear, which is our traditional source of food?” she wrote. “That animal will be used to feed the entire community. Inuit have passed on their knowledge of the hunt to their children for centuries and this is something to be celebrated and not ashamed of.”
Her office also released a statement from Moscow, where she was attending a meeting celebrating the 40th anniversary of an international polar bear conservation agreement, announcing that Aglukkaq had signed a joint declaration that recognizes scientific evidence that the species is threatened. The declaration also made a commitment to improve scientific monitoring and other efforts to protect the species from extinction.
Derocher said there are many changes underway in the north. He said that some polar bears – about two-thirds of the global population of the species is in Canada -are starting to spend more time on land and increasing contact with human populations. With 19 populations across the circumpolar Arctic, he said that some are stable, some might be increasing, and some decreasing. He also said there are some populations for which there is not enough information on trends.
“While the minister’s brother might say he’s seeing more polar bears, there are lots of reasons for seeing more polar bears and one of them is the distribution changes,” Derocher said. “Sometimes it is because the population is increasing, but it’s a dynamic process and you need solid scientific information to determine what’s going on.”