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What’s a polar bear worth to you?

Nov 23. 11

Canadians would be willing to pay $6.3 billion per year — $508 per household — to ensure the polar bears do not disappear, according to a report commissioned by Environment Canada.

With 15,000 of these majestic creatures roaming the Canadian Arctic, that’s about $420,000 per bear — slightly less than the average price of a house in Toronto.

The multi-billion dollar value comes from a variety of the bears’ charming, albeit hard to quantify, qualities, the report explains.

The polar bear’s image is constantly used in advertising campaigns, the report points out. (Think of Coca Cola’s obsession with the great, white bear around Christmas and its $2 million contribution to the World Wildlife Fund to help conserve the bears.)

The iconic image of ursus maritimus has even been hijacked by the government of Canada for the $2 coin.

Plus, polar bears are an invaluable asset to science and education, the report states. Their fur has fibre-optic properties that capture heat, and their status at the top of the food chain provides much information on habitat productivity.

“It is, moreover, a charismatic animal whose image has come to symbolize climate change,” the report continues.

All these factors add up to the preservation value of the species, said Maria Olar, an ÉcoRessources Consultants senior analyst who worked on the report for three months.

“It’s the value of keeping the species alive for different reasons, for next generations,” she explained.

And Canadians want their polar bears to stay alive, based on the meta-analysis that showed their willingness to pay to be $508 per household.

This pushes the polar bear’s popularity ahead of the threatened St. Lawrence beluga whale, although it, too, is a “charismatic species,” the report states.

People would pay only $107 per year to save the whales even though they have a higher risk factor than the bears.

(There are no reports, yet, on the economic value of the beaver, the reigning national symbol.)

Polar bears also bring tangible values to the economy. Sport and subsistence hunting add an annual $1.9 million, while tourism — especially to Churchill, Man. — brings an additional $7.2 million.

Olar does admit that the total economic value of a polar bear is “tough to measure,” she said.

The report did not quantify the intrinsic value of polar bears or the cultural, artistic and spiritual value of the bears to aboriginal peoples, which can be “very significant.”

The report, which cost the federal government $41,300, was used to help decide whether polar bears should be named a “species of special concern.”

The bears were put on the list in early November, a decision that many favoured despite worries among some First Nations and Inuit groups that the designation would limit hunting quotas.

The government wanted to understand the costs and benefits of preserving polar bears, said Mary Taylor, a director at Environment Canada.

“It’s a key building block to help us understand the importance of polar bears to Canadians,” Taylor said.

But Environment Minister Peter Kent wouldn’t spend the money on the study again, at least not until the budget is balanced, he told The Canadian Press.

“You’re quite right to be somewhat skeptical of trying to put a dollar value on the importance of an iconic Canadian species,” Kent said.

“If you were to ask me what I put the price of polar bears to Canada and to Canadians, I’d say, ‘priceless.’ ”

By Emily Jackson, The Star

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