The polar bear is the top arctic terrestrial predator, depending on both sea-ice to hunt seals and land for denning and other pivotal aspects of its life cycle. It is a sentinel of arctic environmental change as we expect that its numbers will diminish as sea ice declines, as preferred prey become less common, and as human activities increase. Polar bears also occupy a central place in Inuit culture, spirituality and hunting practices, featuring prominently in their traditional knowledge system called Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ). Canada is home to ~15,000 polar bears or approximately 2/3 of the global population, with Nunavut and the Northwest Territories having management jurisdiction over most of these. Canada must show international leadership in polar bear conservation, as its actions in management, monitoring and research are key to ensuring the species persistence globally and providing insights on the state of arctic ecosystems.
Our project BEARWATCH: Monitoring Impacts of Arctic Climate Change using Polar Bears, Genomics and Traditional Ecological Knowledge is developing a non-invasive biomarker toolkit and community-based monitoring program that combines leading-edge genomics with comprehensive social science, all set within a framework of collaboration with northern communities, Indigenous organizations, and territorial and other levels of government. Our Genome Canada project will deliver a flexible, verified scat-based molecular toolkit for polar bears that can be extended to other large wildlife species. We will also provide some foundation for a community-based monitoring program that will collect data annually to track changes in polar bear populations and provide a tangible means for financially supporting members of Arctic Indigenous communities.
This faecal-based toolkit provides a powerful way to monitor polar bears in real-time and noninvasively, reflecting the desires of Indigenous communities and northern governments, and thus the needs of partner environmental consulting firms like Environmental Resources Management (ERM) and Contango. The outcomes of our research will be enduring, have positive impacts for northern communities, and provide key insights for polar bear management and tracking the changing ecosystems of the Canadian Arctic. This work will truly situate Canada as a world leader in genomics-based, community-oriented research for wildlife management.