Arctic communities in Northern Canada are now facing a new problem due to the warming weather. Grizzly bears are finding their way into the communities where they historically have not been seen, causing alarm among communities and conservationists alike.

The grizzlies have been recently encountered in the communities of Arviat, Baker Lake, Rankin Inlet and Chesterfield Inlet. “Elders say they never saw grizzlies in their childhood. People are pretty concerned about this new phenomenon,” said Vincent L’Hérault, a doctoral student at the Université du Québec à Rimouski who is researching the situation.

L’Hérault’s research into the changes happening in the North is part of a five-year collaborative project that involves 13 communities, tallymen and hunters, the government of Nunavut, as well as fellow researchers.

But climate is also pushing polar bears dangerously close to the northern communities. The problem stems from the late freezing of the ice, which forces polar bears to stay on land and to forage for food in new places. Residents have been warned not to leave dog food outside as the bears can develop a taste for it.

A problem with grizzly bears is that they are not hunted according to community quota and are not regarded as fur-bearers. Thus they are not subject to the same regulations as polar bears. When a grizzly is encountered it is killed on the grounds of human safety.

The security issues are of the greatest concern as grizzly bears are not afraid to approach humans in order to find food left at remote hunting camps, cabins and the periphery of northern communities.

Polar bears can normally be scared away by firing a gun into the air, but there is not much that frightens a grizzly. Because there is a quota on the polar bear, hunters will do more to scare off polar bears when the quota is reached.

The fur and meat of the grizzly bear are quite valued by northern communities. Its meat has the flavour of herbivores, such as caribou and moose. Conservationists are worried as grizzlies and polar bears are listed as species of special concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Because of the shorter cold season, grizzlies spend less time in their dens and are traveling further than they once did to look for food. Estimating an exact figure for the number of grizzlies has proven difficult for scientists. L’Hérault said in this case “sometimes traditional ecological knowledge can be more precise than science.”

Earlier this fall, a study was launched in order to determine the number of polar bears that can be sustainably harvested by Inuit hunters. There has been much international outcry over the traditional hunting of polar bears, even leading to a ban by the European Union of Baffin Bay bear parts. However, Inuit hunters claim that there are more bears than there once were and restrictions should not be placed on the traditional hunt.

The new reality for northern communities is that global warming is bringing about many economic, ecological, social and environmental changes. More studies need to be conducted to ensure the survival of the communities in Nunavut as well as of the majestic animals that make their home in the frozen tundra of the North.