The Inuit Tapiriit of Canada are protesting attempts in the United States to have polar bears designated as an endangered species. They argue that the bears are being killed in sustainable numbers, that a listing in the United States would cut off the supply of hunters, and that such hunting provides vital economic stimulus within their communities. Apparently, the total population of polar bears is estimated at 25,000. Between the summers of 2006 and 2007, 498 bears were killed – 120 of those by commercial hunters who paid about $30,000 for the right to do so. They also hired guides and purchased goods and services within native communities.
The situation raises a number of moral questions. The most obvious is whether it is ethical or prudent to fund conservation efforts through hunting. Unsurprisingly, The Economist says yes, at least for African game. It does make sense to say that ensuring conservation of nature depends on making such conservation in the interests of those who live in the region. After all, they are the only ones with a sustainable capacity for enforcement.
The polar bear may also be a special case. It is estimated that melting sea ice could slash their numbers by two thirds or more by 2050. In response to that, it is possible to argue that saving as many as possible from hunting is justified; it could also be argued that we may as well hunt them, since they are doomed anyhow.
The particular case of polar bears is probably not especially important. Barring dramatic and sudden shifts in the climate policy of most states, it seems unlikely that more than a handful will survive the coming Arctic melt. It is entirely conceivable that all Arctic summer ice will be gone in a few decades and that the bears will only survive in zoos, and possibly by shifting to a new habitat and food supply. The effect those changes will have upon the Inuit are difficult to over-state.
A more general moral question raised by all of this is: “To whom do species belong?” Legally, they belong to the states in which they are found. At the same time, it is part of international law that states are not permitted to take actions that impose ecological costs on other states. Clearly, Brazil or Indonesia burning or cutting down their rainforests has such an effect. The situation is less clear when it is a locally important ecosystem or a single species being considered. Do people in India or France have a right to the existence of polar bears? Is it part of the collective of nature, within which we are all trustees?
It does seem as though there is a certain force to that argument, and a parallel obligation on the part of states not to destroy elements of their natural legacy. Of course, a strong case can be made that allowing hunting to pay for conservation serves rather than violates this principle. Such are the kinds of questions that need to be hashed out within international law and politics as the clash between a notion of state sovereignty predicated on non-interference clashes with the nature of a world as interconnected and full of humans as ours is.