Environment

Inuvialuit hunters to help study plastic in polar bear stomachs


Spurred by Alaskan research which found large plastic items in many polar bear stomachs, hunters are being asked to help a similar study in the Northwest Territories.

In a poster, the Inuvialuit Game Council requests that hunters who harvest polar bears share photos of the animals' stomach contents – with $20 offered to those who bring images to their local Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) office.

By cutting open the stomach, taking a "clear picture," and texting the image to 867-678-0477 with their tag number, hunters can contribute to the work.

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Researchers want to find out whether plastics are prevalent in the stomachs of polar bears in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, an area where more than 1,200 bears are thought to live. The jurisdictions of Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories work together to manage polar bears, which inhabit a region roughly from Icy Cape, Alaska to Tuktoyaktuk.

Scientists in the Alaskan North Slope Borough earlier found that 25 percent of bears in their area had "large pieces of plastic" in their stomachs. The team analyzed 51 bears either harvested by subsistence hunters or found dead between 1996 and 2018.

A poster displays instructions for hunters.

Right now, little is known about polar bears' stomachs in the Inuvialuit region. ENR biologist Steve Baryluk said the Alaskan study's findings did not surprise him, but did trigger more interest in finding out how local polar bears compare.

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The territory's project involves ENR, the NWT's Wildlife Management Advisory Council, and the Inuvialuit Game Council.

While polar bears primarily hunt seals or scavenge the carcasses of whales, seals, and walrus, researchers say the bears have become habituated to other food sources. These include food found at landfills and around places where people live.

Bulky plastics often lead to bad outcomes for bears. Pieces of plastic can block a bear's stomach outlet – the pyloric sphincter – which has been seen to cause weight loss, vomiting, and abdominal pain in brown and black bears.

"If they get larger pieces of plastic that they can't pass through their stomach into their colon, it could end up causing ... a significant amount of pain and potentially death in the worst-case scenario," said Baryluk.

The Alaskan researchers noted two polar bears with a lot of non-food items in their stomach – including plastic bags and towels – were described as "aggressive and irritable bears that did not respond to deterrent measures."

Baryluk said much of the problem, and the solution, lies in waste management.

If people remove plastics and other garbage from polar bear country, he said, the animals cannot consume them. While all garbage should be taken back, of particular concerns are larger items like plastic bags.

"If you have things like a large knot in a plastic bag, that's not going to be digested in the stomach," Baryluk said. "The bears will have a very difficult time, if not impossible time, to actually pass that through."

The NWT project is in its first year. By the end of the harvesting season, there should be enough information to decide whether more intensive research is needed.

The Inuvialuit in Canada and Inupiat in Alaska co-manage the harvesting, treatment, and sharing of research on polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea. An agreement has been in place since 1988.


Correction: November 22, 2019 – 10:47 MT. The agreement governing Inuvialuit and Inupiat harvesting, treatment, and research regarding polar bears has existed since 1988, not 2000 as we initially reported.

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