BEARWATCH: Monitoring impacts of Arctic climate change using polar bears, genomics and traditional ecological knowledge (2015)


Bioproducts & Environment


Polar bears are the canary in the Arctic coalmine. Dependent on sea ice for hunting seals and land for denning, they are a sentinel of Arctic environmental change. Polar bears also play a central role in Inuit culture, spirituality and hunting practices and feature largely in their traditional knowledge system, called Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ). As sea ice quality and quantity decline, preferred food sources become less available. Polar bears’ numbers in Canada’s north – currently around 15,000, about two-thirds of the world’s population of them – are expected to decline. Canada must show international leadership in polar bear conservation, both to ensure polar bears’ persistence and to provide insight into the state of Arctic ecosystems. BEARWATCH, led by Dr. Stephen C. Lougheed of Queen’s University, in collarboration with Drs. Peter van Coeverden de Groot and Graham Whitelaw from Queen’s University, and Markus Dyck, who is with the Government of Nunavut, will develop a non-invasive, fecal-based biomarker toolkit and a community-based monitoring program. The project will combine leading-edge genomics with comprehensive social science, developed and implemented within a framework of collaboration with northern communities, indigenous organizations and territorial and other levels of government. It will result in a database that combines IQ and other indigenous traditional ecological knowledge with polar bear genetic identity and ecological and physiological measures that permit assessment of bear health. The community-based monitoring program will provide ongoing data for tracking changes in polar bear populations, while also providing income to Arctic indigenous communities. BEARWATCH will result in key insights for polar bear management and for tracking the changing ecosystems of the Canadian Arctic, situating Canada as a world leader in genomics-based, community-oriented research for wildlife management. The project’s GE3LS research component will integrate polar bear Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and science as well as historical data, allowing the project team to compare insights from each knowledge system and translate findings into a community-based monitoring protocol that will track polar bear population responses to environmental change. It will also involve an evaluation of impacts of the research on Canadian polar bear management and policy, Environmental Assessments by northern resource industries, and Inuit Impact Benefit Agreements.