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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Scientists and native people in the Arctic want to protect Canada's polar bears despite disagreements over the health of the bear population, Environment Minister Jim Prentice said on Friday.
Environmental groups want Canada to increase protection of the bears from climate change and hunting, but many Inuit who depend on the animals for income say the bear population is in better shape than scientists realize.
"There is a real desire to knit the Inuit traditional knowledge ... together with the scientific knowledge," Prentice said following a "polar bear roundtable" in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with representatives of various groups.
The Canadian government considers polar bears a species of special concern, but environmentalists say the classification should be changed to declare the animals as threatened or endangered so they can be better protected.
Canada is home to about two thirds of the world's 25,000 polar bears.
The United States last year said it was listing polar bears as a threatened species.
While the Inuit have traditionally hunted bears, their value now is as a key source of income for residents who serve as guides for visiting sports hunters.
A portion of the bear population that Canada shares with Greenland face the biggest problems, so authorities in both areas will have to work together to address the issue, Prentice said.
While the bears had become a symbol of the impact of global warming, Prentice said, Canada could not address that problem alone. "Climate change is important, but climate change is a global issue," he said.
A 2007 report by the U.S. Geological Survey said two thirds of the world's polar bear population could be gone by 2050 if predictions of melting sea ice because of global warming hold true.
The Winnipeg meeting was just part of the Canada's review process, so a decision on whether to reclassify the bears was not going to happen until 2010, Prentice said.
Reporting Allan Dowd, Editing by Philip Barbara