Polar bear patrols vital as Arctic ice recedes

Posted: Monday, May 10, 2010

ANCHORAGE - For $16 an hour, Morgan VanHatten patrolled the streets of Kaktovik in a Ford pickup last fall armed with a 12-gauge shotgun and an iPhone full of Lil Wayne. Her mission: Shoo away the many polar bears that creep into town at the brink of whaling season.

E. Regehr / U.s. Geological Survey
E. Regehr / U.s. Geological Survey

"They come in and they usually just hang out at the whale bones and stuff," said VanHatten, a 25-year-old who would sometimes break up her shift to take college courses in business and human resources over the phone. "Some people that don't put their whale meat away in their yard, that's when they come into town because they smell it, and it would make my job kind of frustrating."

Researchers say that as Arctic sea ice recedes, the chance for human and polar-bear encounters is increasing along the North Slope. Now, following the 2008 listing of the bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing a list of guidelines for warding the animals away from towns and villages.

Recently published in the Federal Register, which started a 30-day public comment period, the guidelines are mostly common-sense human-polar bear etiquette.

Build "bear exclusion cages" with bars at least one inch thick around entryways - picture a shark cage on land - so people can step safely outside their homes and look around for lurking bears. Install gates and various barriers, such as chain link fencing around the bottom of buildings to discourage bears from sneaking underneath.

"You don't want bears walking across playgrounds," said Rosa Meehan, chief of the Marine Mammal Program for the Wildlife Service in Alaska.

Other proposed guidelines include sealing trash in bear-proof containers and using devices such as air horns or simply gunning a car engine to startle bears away. Using boats or trucks to block approaching bears is suggested.

Chasing the bears is not.

The proposals don't address the use of beanbag ammunition or noise-making "cracker" shells for shotguns, which is what VanHatten carries on patrol in her Barter Island village of 300 people.

The Wildlife Service says it already tackles more aggressive tactics through separate provisions in the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Harold Snowball, a deputy director for the North Slope Borough public works department who once bought a three-wheeler from a man who was later killed by a polar bear in Point Lay, says the rule for encountering a polar bear is simple.

"Go the other way," he said.

Now that once-permanent sea ice along the coast is being replaced by unpredictable young ice, more polar bears appear to find themselves stuck on land, he said.

"Over the past couple years, we've probably had anywhere from four or five to almost 20 locked on the land and the ice is just too far out that they don't swim," Snowball said.

Sgt. Jose Gutierrez, with the borough police department, says he's worked in the area off and on for more than 10 years. Over that time, the number of people calling to report polar bears seemed to drop, he said, as the borough and other agencies moved carcasses from bowhead whale hunts farther from town. The oil industry has its own protocol for polar bear encounters at Prudhoe Bay and the other fields, with their deterrence plans permitted through the Wildlife Service, officials said. Dangerous, curious predators, polar bears can grow to eight or nine feet from nose to tail and weigh as much as 1,760 pounds. They have rarely attacked humans in Alaska.

Under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, people can only kill a polar bear if human life is in danger, Wildlife officials said. The exception is Alaska Native subsistence hunting.

Defending your property isn't an excuse, said Bruce Woods, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman. "You couldn't kill a polar bear because it was getting into your chicken coop, whereas you could with a brown bear."

In Kaktovik, VanHatten circled the village between 4 p.m. and midnight last fall, Jay-Z's "Run This Town" spilling out onto the tundra. Sometimes she stopped to pick up neighbors walking in the arctic cold.

The bears were hungrier and more bold than when she first joined the polar bear patrol in 2007.

"They were like, starving. I couldn't believe the difference," VanHatten said.

One night after class she found a mother and two cubs eating outside a home in the heart of town. The bears split, but soon returned to the village and were later killed because the mother was hurt, VanHatten said.

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