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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative

Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

Do Polar Bears Have Value?

Just How Dumb the Canadian Government Can Be!

Published 12/27/10

While I’m used to the current federal government of Canada doing bad or stupid things, I suppose it could be argued that I’m not qualified to comment on most of them beyond saying that they bother or worry me.

But recently Ottawa came up with something that is well within my sphere or knowledge and involvement: conservation. Specifically the federal government has decided to put a price tag on polar bears. The fools have decided to create a panel charged with determining the total economic value of the polar bear.

It can’t be done. I’ll tell you why in a moment, but for now let me say that just as I increasingly hear U.S. political pundits declare that the differences between the political “right” and “left” are passé, in Canada they are very evident, and the country is currently ruled from the far right. I characterize the far right as being suspicious of facts and fond of simple solutions to complex issues, like this one, and catering to materialism and greed.

Reportedly a hunter who kills a polar bear is charged $15,000 up front, while to see one from a tundra buggy costs a tourist $5,200. Of course the viewed polar bear can be viewed many times, each new tourist generating more revenue, while a polar bear who is shot no longer directly contributes to the economy. On the other hand, viewing and hunting are often in different locations.

I have this distasteful vision of my tax dollars funding a huddle of economists hunched over stats, tables and economic models, trying to quantify, rounded off to the nearest dollar, just what the presence or absence of a polar bear is worth compared to the value of a land where oil, gas, gold, diamonds and other natural resources in the Canadian Arctic can be extracted without having to worry about the effect of such extraction on the bears.

"We're trying to put that value on what it means to the economy and what it means just to have a polar bear around," Mary Taylor, director of Environment Canada's conservation service, reportedly claimed. Doing this sort of thing is actually a bit of a growth industry. Is a dead elephant’s ivory worth more than a live elephant trampling food crops, but attracting tourist dollars?

Here’s the problem: time. We humans live in the relative moment. To us, 250,000 years is an incomprehensibly long time. But in geological and evolutionary terms, it is a brief moment. I chose it because it represents the estimated number of years from when what we now call the polar bear diverged from the common ancestor of what we now call the brown (grizzly) bear. The fact that these two species still occasionally hybridize demonstrates that the process, called “speciation,” is not quite complete. Mind you, our government contains some senior people who think the world is just a few thousand years old. They’re beyond reason.

Evolution is real and demonstrable and it does not reach some plateau and then end — unless it is halted by extinction. Extinction is precisely the threat that polar bears increasingly face. How on earth can we assign a monetary value to a species that might well continue to evolve for another 250,000, or many times that many, years? Non-renewable natural resources are of relatively high monetary value, but short existence. We couldn’t have predicted our current needs from just a few centuries ago; all we know is that the more non-renewable resources we destroy, the fewer options our own species will have in the centuries and millennia to follow.

The Inuit leaders are no help. They have a monopoly on the income from polar bear hunting licenses and see polar bears as cash cows to be killed for profits. They claim their elders assure them that there are plenty of bears, but their elders never experienced anything like the global threat of climate change now facing the polar bear and many other species. There is no way to stop the changes we are seeing in our climate, and the only way to survive them is through adaptation. Each bear removed from the population could be the one with some heritable trait in the form of some minor variance of behavior or physiology that would enhance survivability in a changing world, but for being forever lost from the impact of a rifle bullet.

Of course the real threat is to a vast ecosystem of which the polar bear is a prominent indicator species. It may be beyond saving, but if that is so it suggests much greater threats. Loss, for example, of permafrost could release methane now frozen within the tundra, that in turn would greatly exacerbate the speed of global climate change, with all the resultant impacts on the world’s ability to sustain us humans, most certainly including our economies, our commercial enterprises, our peace, social stability and our health.

Canada has been a shameful laggard on fighting climate change. Put simply, the current government argues that there is no use cutting back on greenhouse gasses when other countries refuse to do so. Leadership is not its style, and yet Canada has one of the highest per capita uses of greenhouse gases of any country.

The polar bear is in trouble, but so, ultimately, are we.

Blogging off,

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