U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


Date of this Version

Winter 2010


The Wildlife Professional Winter 2010


In 1977, scientific surveys indicated that bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) in the Beaufort Sea were in trouble, with fewer than 1,000 individuals remaining. The International Whaling Commission took action to put a moratorium on native hunts in order to protect the species. Yet local Inuit hunters didn't see what the fuss was about. Their own estimates, gleaned from time and experience, put bowhead numbers at 7,000. The Inuits also disputed western scientists' contentions that whales couldn't swim under offshore ice and that they did not feed during migration. Researchers responded to these criticisms by developing a new survey method to census the population, incorporating Inuit understanding of whale behavior. In 1991, the new survey estimated that bowheads numbered 8,000- an affirmation of the ecological knowledge held by individuals who depended upon the whales for food, fuel, and shelter (Freeman 1995).

As indigenous sovereignty and other rights become recognized around the globe, many governments are developing strategies to work with indigenous communities to co-manage land and resources (Colchester 2004). In navigating this often daunting process, a new challenge has arisen: How to accept and incorporate into western science the traditional ecological knowledge and cultural norms that guide how indigenous communities use and manage natural resources.