WASHINGTON — Until they were classified as a threatened species in the United States three years ago, a Canadian polar bear was the ultimate trophy for many elite American sport hunters.
Led by Inuit guides, hunters traveled for days by dog sled to the far northern reaches of iced-over Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. They endured temperatures so far below zero that they had to cover all exposed skin. And they paid dearly for it: Each trip cost $40,000 to $60,000, and few hunters were satisfied until they brought home bears.
Today, the rare trophies from those hunts — generally a skin and claws, along with the skull and the penis bone, known as an "oosik" in the Native language — are in a legal limbo that stretches from the Arctic Circle to the Canadian capital in Ottawa to the halls of the U.S. Congress.
The Endangered Species Act prohibits importing animals that are listed as endangered or threatened. As a result, sport-hunted polar bear trophies from Canada can't be imported, the government argues, even if they were hunted before the bears were considered threatened.
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The dispute over the trophies spans the intertwined futures of the polar bears, whose habitat is shrinking, and the Native population, whose economy gets a strong boost from the income from hunts.
An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears range across Canada, Russia, Greenland, Norway and Alaska. Sport hunting is legal only in Canada, home to an estimated 15,000 of the bears.
Conservationists don't outright endorse sport hunting of the bears, but they do have an uncomfortable truce with the concept. The World Wildlife Fund's Geoff York, a polar bear expert, said the organization didn't oppose sustainable harvests when they benefited local economies.
What's worrying environmentalists, York said, is an uptick in the value of polar bear hides, spurred in part by new wealth in Russia and China. Because guides haven't had paying customers, in some cases they're using their quotas to kill the bears and sell their pelts. An increased value for pelts means that more bears are likely to be killed or poached.
The U.S. classified the bears as threatened in 2008 based on their shrinking sea ice habitat. At the same time, it issued a rule prohibiting the Endangered Species Act from being used to regulate greenhouse gases to address the global warming that led to the bears' loss of habitat.
If the Arctic continues its melting trend, government scientists have projected that polar bear populations worldwide could decline as much as two-thirds by midcentury. They could be nearly extinct by the end of the century.
Although the bears have a special status in Canada, the Canadian government objected to the 2008 "threatened" listing. Each Canadian province within the bears' range has established its own harvest rules. Some have quotas; others don't. The hunting licenses go to Native people, who determine in their communities how to divide them. That's caused concern this year among the hunters of Nunavut, who have a quota, and those of the northern Quebec community of Nunavik, who don't. Will
Alaska Natives, too, can shoot a limited number of polar bears under U.S. subsistence hunting laws. About three dozen are shot each year in Alaska, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But sport hunting for polar bears has effectively been off limits in this country for four decades.
It's disheartening for the hunters whose hides remain in cold storage in Canada, said Mark Beeler, a contractor from Hubertus, Wis., who shot a polar bear in April 2008 after waiting nearly three years for a guide with experience leading a bow hunter.
"I'm not sorry I went," said Beeler, 52. "I'll never be sorry I went. It was an experience of a lifetime that nobody can take away from me. But it would nice to have the trophy back in the U.S."
John Jackson III is a Louisiana lawyer who heads the pro-hunting nonprofit Conservation Force. Along with a lawyer from Safari Club International, he argued on behalf of 41 American hunters who shot their bears in early 2008, just before the Endangered Species Act took effect, in federal court in Washington this month as a small piece of a multiparty lawsuit dominated by environmental groups that want the U.S. government to list polar bears as endangered, not merely threatened.
"This is one of the greatest Arctic adventures: by dog sled, 700 to 800 miles above the Arctic Circle, as much as 60-below-zero temperatures, with Native people," Jackson said. "It's one of the hardest, most adventurous hunts in the world, but it's the relationship with the people and the habitat, as well as the extraordinary animal. All of it's an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Many of the hunters declined to be interviewed, saying they feared they'd become targets of animal rights activists. Their names are a public record, however, because to import polar bear skins from Canada, they must submit applications to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which publishes them in the Federal Register. They must also pay $1,000.
Beyond the ability to afford such a hunt, the hunters share a love of the outdoors and the insatiable urge to track and kill animals in far-flung places.
"I love the hard hunts," said James Martell, a 70-year-old rancher and rural telephone company owner from Glenns Ferry, Idaho, who's shot two bears in five journeys to Canada. They include a rare grizzly-polar bear hybrid he has on display at his home on Idaho's Snake River. "It is very hard mentally. You can't hardly prepare for the cold; it was 60 below zero. You're sleeping on the ice."
Hunting groups that are trying to reverse the ban also have appealed to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, a lifelong hunter and one of Safari Club International's greatest supporters in Congress. Many of the hunters seeking to bring their trophies to the U.S. from Canada are active in the group, as well as donors to it.
Young introduced legislation that allows the 41 to import their hides; a separate bill would allow future hunters to do so, too. The legislation is likely to pass the Republican-led House of Representatives, but its fate is less certain in the Senate.
Dan Frederick, who runs Ameri-Cana Expeditions Inc. out of Edmonton, Alberta, said its polar bear-hunting business was at about 15 percent of what it was before the ban. It's now made up almost exclusively of visitors from outside North America.
Frederick's convinced, though, that the government will change its mind eventually and allow U.S. hunters to bring home their polar bear trophies.
"When it does reopen, the interest definitely will be skyrocketing up to what it was," Frederick said. "I'll be filling up my camps again. Once they open it up, the guys will be standing in line again, because lots of guys want to do it. But they want to bring it back."
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