Siege of the Polar Bears
Credit: RGB Ventures LLC / Alamy
In 2011, a bear broke Darryl Baker's sled-dog pen, killing one of his dogs. Carefully bred and highly trained, sled dogs are worth several thousand dollars each. When the bear ignored a warning shot, Baker killed it.

Darryl and his wife, Kukik, live near Hudson Bay, just off the cemetery road. I drove over one day to talk about the bear problem. It was 2 p.m. and the sun was setting. Like the 8 a.m. sunrise, the sunset would last for two hours – in late November, half the day's illumination is twilight, which tempers the overwhelming whiteness of the land.

Driving to the Bakers', I passed insubstantial wood-frame houses with vinyl or wood siding, incongruously painted pale yellow, rust, sea green, powder blue. Smoke or steam came up from elbowed aluminum chimneys. Every house had an enclosed entry porch for removing snow gear and storing butchered meat. (Several times in Arviat, on the way to someone's living room, I passed a caribou's upper half.) Trucks were rare; most houses had ATVs or snowmobiles or no vehicles at all. In front of several homes stood small scrap-wood sleds, some with mini cabins, for pulling groceries and children. Huskies lay tethered in yards. I noticed the whiskers of a frozen dead seal poking out of a porch-step snowbank; a wolf pelt hung from a railing.

The Bakers' house was blue and sizable. Their comfortable living area smelled faintly, but not unpleasantly, of frozen sea mammal. A bearskin and photos of seal and whale and caribou hunts hung on the walls. Darryl, having thrown out his back ax-cleaving frozen seal and whale carcasses to feed the dogs, was lying on a big sectional, talking on a cell phone in front of a large flatscreen TV. Kukik, who is 31 and even-tempered, offered me tea and a seat at the kitchen table, then clicked two cartridges of chai into an automatic teamaker.

Darryl got off the phone, stiffly ambled over, and sat down.

"Are you walking?" he asked. "Because there was a polar bear right out here on this road about an hour ago."

Darryl and Kukik said that many people in Arviat don't walk around after dark anymore. Some don't walk around in the daytime. Children rarely play outside, and when they do, their parents order them to stay within "running distance" of the house. Kukik said that as a girl she roamed carefree through town and along the water, but she would never let her daughter do that now.

The current situation, Darryl pointed out, would not have been a problem for his grandfathers. As recently as the late fifties, the Inuit people lived in small, seminomadic bands. Arviat had been a summer hunting camp. The mobility the Inuit surrendered when they moved to Arviat made them vulnerable to changes in the migration route, a vulnerability magnified by population concentration. A dump became necessary, and for the first time, many hundreds of caches of whale and seal meat lay side by side on the tundra. Arviat was now a bear lure.

The Canadian government introduced the quota system for polar bear hunting in the 1960s, a response to overharvesting by commercial and sport hunters. When westerners (or "southerners," as they are often called in Nunavut) screwed up the climate and drove polar bears right into Arviat's backyards, a sensible solution would have been to exempt Arviat residents from the quota and implement a bear deterrence system. A model for such a system exists: Churchill employs a full-time bear response team, maintains a bear holding facility, and has a transport helicopter on call. Bears are darted, marked, and confined as soon as they enter town, and then flown 30 miles north. Churchill also ships its garbage south.

But even as the bear problem became life-threateningly acute in Arviat, no politician moved to shield the town. Leo Ikakhik's position as Arviat's bear monitor had been created with funds not from the government but from the World Wildlife Fund, in 2011. The WWF provided Ikakhik, 52, with a snowmobile and firecracker shells and rubber bullets, but he had to use his own shotgun and rifle. His job exists only because the Coca-Cola Company, having made the polar bear its mascot, recently contributed to the WWF, which in turn gave Arviat the money to hire Ikakhik. To people like the Bakers, the WWF does more harm than good: It exploits a caricature of the polar bear – vulnerable, noble, adorable – to lobby for the hunting prohibitions that leave people in Arviat defenseless.

The Inuit, of course, have always hunted polar bears sustainably. To people in Arviat, the southerners' assumption seems to be that unregulated Inuit would treat polar bears like white people had.

Darryl and Kukik said that no one in Arviat "played around" with wildlife. The culture didn't allow it. "Musk ox, caribou, beluga – this is our big farm up here," Darryl said.

"We use every part, right down to the bones," Kukik said.

No protection, imposed defenselessness – the message, inadvertent or not, seemed clear: An Inuit life was not worth a polar bear's. Darryl and Kukik Baker said that when large predators threaten southerners, those predators tend to disappear. That's true: If mountain lions from the San Gabriel Wilderness began overrunning parts of northern Los Angeles County, disemboweling pets and stalking children, and the county was too poor to defend itself, it's unlikely that government officials would do nothing except fund studies of the mountain lion population, prohibit residents from shooting lions in self-defense, and chirpily emphasize that the WWF had hired a lion monitor – one guy on a dirt bike with a beanbag shotgun and no radio – to safeguard 30 miles of suburb-wilderness interface. This is what the Canadian government has offered Arviat.

Kukik got up and brought out a polar bear pelt from a back room. She'd cut circles out of one end for mittens. Polar bear mittens are unique because they never get wet, she said. She hadn't decided what she was going to use the rest for. Maybe boots, maybe blankets.

I asked what polar bear tasted like.

"Like walrus," Darryl said. Along with walrus, people in Arviat eat seal and whale blubber, but the meat is generally disdained. "To me, at least – I don't know how it is for other people."

"It's really tender," Kukik said. "And the blubber – it's not like a cow; it's on the outside. It's really good."

Polar bear shootings are rare enough in Arviat that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation covered Darryl's kill. Afterward, Kukik said, "there were all these comments from southerners, and they were really nasty. Even if you try to explain to them how we live, they have such tunnel vision that they can't understand."

"These are not cuddly, fluffy animals," Darryl said. "They're very big and scary, especially for the kids. Some little kid is going to get hurt, and that'll be the end of the bear problem."

As I was putting on my gear on the porch, the phone rang. After a brief conversation in Inuktitut, Kukik said, "Keep your eyes open – there's a bear in town."