ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — For isolated communities at the top of the world, keeping the planet’s top land predators — polar bears — out of town is key to coexistence.
This can mean patrolling for animals on snowmobiles or quads, chasing them with searchlights or a boost motor, or confusing them with shotguns. In a Canadian town, polar bears that cannot be scared are kept in an air-conditioned “bear prison” until they can be airlifted onto the ice floe. Such bear patrols have long been successful in reducing conflict.
But this week, a polar bear attack killed a mother and her one-year-old son in Wales, a small remote whaling village in Alaska whose bear patrol had ceased. The incident – the first fatal polar bear attack in Alaska in 30 years – underscored the risks of living alongside the creatures, which can weigh more than 1,700 pounds (771 kg).
Although it is unclear why the bear attacked, and although no patrol can prevent all awkward encounters between bears and humans, the mutilation has renewed interest in such programs.
“There are absolutely discussions now in Wales, saying, ‘Hey, maybe things have changed to the point where we need this, and how can we do this? “Said Susan Nedza, superintendent of the Bering Strait School District.
Polar bear attacks are extremely rare. But as climate change reduces the amount of Arctic ice, forcing bears to spend more time on land, the number of encounters between humans and bears is increasing, researchers say. Raising awareness and improving ways to keep bears and people safe has become imperative.
In northeast Russia, patrol boats have planted walrus carcasses away from villages to attract bears. Patrols were increased in 2019 when around 60 polar bears descended on Ryrkaypiy in Russia’s remote Chukotka region, forcing the cancellation of all public events.
In Arviat, a hamlet on Hudson’s Bay in northern Canada, a bear patrol program has dramatically reduced the number of bears killed in defense of life or property from about eight per year before its launch in 2010 to one per year thereafter.
Another Hudson’s Bay town, Churchill in northeastern Manitoba, has had a bear warning program in place for decades and turned the animals into a tourist attraction. There, wildlife officers and police patrol by helicopter and on the ground to protect tricksters on Halloween. Problem bears are captured and held in an air-conditioned “bear prison” until the ice freezes and they can be transported to where they can find natural prey such as seals.
Another successful model is found among coastal communities on the North Slope, where Alaska meets the Arctic Ocean; the tribes there have traditionally hunted bears, as well as whales and seals. It is not uncommon to see dozens of bears around some of these villages, depending on the time of year and the ice conditions.
In the early 1990s, dozens of polar bears massed on the shore of Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, the northernmost community in the United States. The village elders got together: the school year was approaching and something had to be done.
On their advice, the city set up patrols to try to keep the polar bears away.
“We did shifts, we used whatever we could use, a snowmobile or a truck,” recalls Billy Adams, an employee of the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management who still sometimes patrols in search of bear. “It’s about keeping people and bears safe.”
The goal is to keep an eye out for bears, respond to reported sightings, and hunt them as gently as possible. Sometimes that just means revving the engine of a snowmobile, truck, or four-wheeler, or shining the spotlight on them; other times it can escalate to the use of bean bags or “cracker shells”, like firecrackers fired from a shotgun, to harass the bears, said Taqulik Hepa, director of the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management in Alaska.
The North Rim has patrols on standby in case the bears approach; three villages now have active patrols, Hepa said.
In Kaktovik in 2014, a patrolman chased a polar bear that had snuck into the driveway of an 81-year-old woman’s home, where it was feeding on a barrel of seal oil. The woman had hidden inside and was unharmed.
The North Slope Borough does not maintain a budget for the program, but supports it by providing fuel or equipment. When available, grants from the US Fish and Wildlife Service help offset costs, which may include payment for patrollers.
Polar bears appear less frequently in Wales, a community that is the westernmost point of the North American continent – just 80 kilometers from Russia across the Bering Strait. Wales has about 150 inhabitants, almost all Inupiat. It is accessible by plane and boat, including barges that deliver household goods. Winter trails provide snowmobile access to other communities and subsistence hunting grounds.
Wales launched a polar bear patrol in 2014 with the help of the World Wide Fund for Nature, which has supported the creation of several such programs in communities in the far north of the world. But the local program has become dormant due to a confluence of factors including the COVID-19 pandemic, the relative lack of bears and the recent death of its leader, Clyde Oxereok.
The community also has fewer financial resources than some of its North Slope counterparts, where the oil industry has boosted the economy.
Even if a patrol had been active, it is not clear that it could have prevented Tuesday’s attack. It happened in the early afternoon – a generally low-risk time for bear encounters – and occurred amid near whiteout, with extremely poor visibility.
Authorities investigating the mutilation said they intended “to learn from this tragedy and determine what future steps we and our communities can take to prevent future deadly human-bear encounters.” , according to a joint statement released Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Nannut Co-management Council, which represents 15 Alaska Native tribes that traditionally hunted polar bears.
Chrissy Friberg, a traveling optician from Washington state, spent a few days in Wales just before the attack, running a clinic for villagers. She said people didn’t seem too concerned about the bear risk.
“We were outside, taking a walk,” she said. “There were no threats or warnings.”
Johnson reported from Seattle.
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