Coexisting with Polar Bears
Alaska’s Arctic is experiencing dramatic shifts across the landscape with the effects of climate change occurring at twice the rate of the rest of the world. Significant loss of sea ice from a warming climate is one example of this change. Polar bears rely on sea ice — their primary habitat — in order to hunt seals, which are their primary food source. In certain regions of the Arctic, loss of sea ice has drastically reduced the ability of polar bears to hunt for seals, and it has resulted in polar bears coming to shore to look for food and den in greater numbers.
There are 19 polar bear populations throughout the circumpolar Arctic, two of which include the United States in part of their range — the Chukchi and Southern Beaufort Sea Populations. The Chukchi population, estimated to number 2,937 bears in 2018, is found in both Russia and Alaska and is considered a stable population at this time. The Southern Beaufort Sea population’s range spans parts of Canada and Alaska, and it has declined precipitously from approximately 1,800 bears in the late 1980s, to 1,500 in 2007, to only 900 at the last completed census in 2015. The Southern Beaufort Sea population is considered the most endangered on the planet, and Defenders has prioritized our polar bear work to focus on this population.
Defenders has a multi-pronged approach to conserving the Southern Beaufort Sea population of polar bears. We are working to protect its critical habitat, minimize climate change effects and reduce human-polar bear conflicts, a priority action of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) 2016 Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan. To reduce human-polar bear conflict, we promote and support a variety of coexistence measures, including the use of polar-bear proof food storage lockers and polar bear patrols in Arctic communities that have implemented community-wide communications systems and use non-lethal hazing and deterrence measures as a first line of defense.
Because the Southern Beaufort Sea population of polar bears has experienced such dramatic declines in the last three decades, reducing human-bear conflicts is an important conservation strategy. The survival of every single polar bear is crucial to sustaining this imperiled population, and therefore reducing human-bear conflict is a priority management action.
Melting sea ice has forced these powerful bears to look for food on land — a search that is increasingly bringing them into contact — and conflict — with people. For the past decade, we have been focused on working with the FWS and the Inupiat community of Kaktovik to promote greater use of nonlethal coexistence methods. Kaktovik is within the boundaries of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain and directly adjacent to the most important onshore polar bear denning habitat in the U.S. Arctic.
Defenders’ coexistence work includes:
- Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan — Working with the FWS, other federal and state agencies, NGOs, the North Slope Borough and other Native partners to assess and prioritize the greatest needs for polar bear conservation in America’s Arctic. As part of the Polar Bear Recovery Team, Defenders was engaged and contributed to the development of the 2016 FWS Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan. Defenders remains engaged in the U.S.- Russia Bilateral Treaty Agreement, attending Commissioners meetings as an Observer, and continues to serve on the human-bear conflict committee that is part of the implementation of this Treaty Agreement.
- Research — Partnering with and supporting researchers at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the FWS to pursue research on polar bears, such as with the use of drones to help identify polar bear dens. We also work with the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, based at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, to support student interns pursuing polar bear research projects with the USGS and/or FWS.
- Food Storage Lockers — Supporting the design, construction and delivery to Kaktovik of polar bear-proof food storage lockers to reduce bear attractants and protect community members’ food stores. Historically, wild-caught, subsistence meats were stored in traditional ice cellars, but because of warming temperatures and thawing permafrost due to climate change, ice cellars are no longer reliable, and community members have had to look to alternatives. Defenders has provided a solution that is effective and very popular in the community. We have worked with an engineering and fabrication firm to develop and build state-of-the-art polar bear-proof food storage lockers and have them shipped to the community of Kaktovik. Fourteen of these food storage lockers have been placed since 2011, helping families and community members store their meat, free of worry of polar bear intrusion.
- Information Sharing — Working with Alaska Native youth to develop educational materials about polar bears. Defenders partnered with the former Alaska Nanuuq Commission and Alaska Teen Media Institute to work with Alaska Native youth from Point Hope, Shishmaref and Wales to explore polar bear safety approaches. This was a successful effort that reached youth living in the Arctic, where polar bears are or can be a part of their daily lives. We also host workshops to share information about polar bear coexistence efforts. For example, we have partnered with the FWS and the former Alaska Nanuuq Commision to support and participate in workshops related to polar bears, focused on areas such as community polar bear patrols and the use of non-lethal deterrence measures.
- Oil Spill Response — Developing information, tools and supplies to better respond to oiled polar bears in the event of an oil spill. Defenders supported the development of critical large marine mammal spill response equipment, such as one-of-a-kind polar bear holding modules and custom polar bear washing tables, staged in key Arctic locations, to clean off polar bears in the event that their fur is oiled from an oil spill. Also, Defenders worked with a data service company and agencies to develop the Bering Strait Response Teaching Tool, to better prepare communities to respond in the event of an oil spill, including with respect to polar bears.
- Polar Bear Community Involvement and Patrols — Defenders has plans to expand our support for polar bear community patrols, specifically for communities in the range of the Southern Beaufort Sea population of polar bears. The patrol programs provide community alert systems and deterrence measures including hazing and other non-lethal techniques as a first line of defense when polar bears enter a community. Polar bear patrols are a program of the North Slope Borough and the FWS since 2010, and the collaboration involves the communities of Kaktovik, Utquiagvik (formerly Barrow), Nuiqsut, Wainwright, Point Lay and Point Hope. This year, due to the prolonged presence of polar bears on land near Kaktovik, the patrol program in Kaktovik had to expand. The program has been very successful as it has kept community members safe and reduced the use of lethal measures as the primary defense measure.
The Southern Beaufort Sea population of polar bears has experienced such a dramatic rate of decline in the past few decades that it is possible that this population could be extirpated within our lifetimes. Clearly drastic measures are needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate and lessen the effects of climate change and slow the loss of sea ice. In the case of the Southern Beaufort Sea population of polar bears, in addition to reducing climate impacts, we need to continue to work to reduce human-bear conflicts so that community residents remain safe and fewer of these polar bears are lost to “defense of life and property” kills. For this population, every bear counts for the population’s long-term viability. Defenders is grateful to be able to work with federal and North Slope government agencies and Arctic communities, families and residents to do what we can to ensure community safety and conserve and ultimately recover this polar bear population.
Alaska Program Director
Nicole Whittington-Evans started her environmental career studying and working on wildlife issues.