By Brian Harris
BARROW, Alaska (Reuters) - The U.S. decision to list polar bears as a threatened species has indigenous Alaskans like Aalak Nayakik worried that hunting the animals they rely on for food and warmth could be banned.
Standing on the edge of the receding sea ice-shelf offshore from Barrow, some 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Nayakik, a member of the Inupiat peoples who have inhabited northern Alaska for centuries, says polar bears are a staple food for his family.
"I like to eat bear meat almost every winter, can't go without it," he said. "It is almost like taking the cow away from the white folks."
The Bush administration's ruling on Wednesday left residents of the northernmost point in the United States uncertain about how their lives and customs will change.
Nayakik, who uses polar bear fur for his family's bedding, said news of the listing has him wondering if hunts will lead to sanctions or jail time.
He estimates that about 20 bears a year are killed by authorized Inupiat hunters in the Barrow area.
"The Inupiat have hunted the polar bear for years, not necessarily for trophy matters but for food, and the hide itself is used for clothing materials," said Barrow Mayor Michael Stotts.
"It is considered a delicacy. It is considered an honor in the Inupiat tradition to be able to capture and have a polar bear," he said.
The bears live only in the Arctic and depend on sea ice as a platform for hunting seals. The U.S. Geological Survey said two-thirds of the world's polar bears -- some 16,000 -- could be gone by 2050 if predictions about melting sea ice hold true.
THINNER ICE, AND LESS OF IT
In announcing the government's decision, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne acknowledged that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions contributed to the global warming that has damaged the bears' habitat.
It is something that Barrow is all too familiar with.
"There is less (ice) and it's thinner. It is not really thick like it used to be," Nayakik, 47, said as he stood at the edge of the ice. "It is going to melt right away."
The new protection was not accompanied by any proposals to address climate change or drilling in the Arctic for the fossil fuels that spur the climate-warming greenhouse effect.
Throughout Barrow, a mostly native community of 4,500 people, there was fear that residents would shoulder an undue amount of the burden to protect the polar bear.
"Everyone needs to worry about it," said Nayakik's son Charlie, 14.
Television host Jeff Corwin, who was in Barrow filming a segment on polar bears for his "Animal Planet" show, said it would be unfair to leave Barrow solely responsible for protecting the polar bear.
"These are the iconic, apex pinnacle predator of these lands," he told Reuters. "I don't think one remote community can or should be saddled with responsibility for that species. It should be shared."
(Editing by Daisuke Wakabayashi, Mary Milliken and Xavier Briand)