Science & Environment

Close encounters with polar bears

Polar bear
Image caption Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt for seals and other marine mammals

With the job of co-ordinating polar bear patrols in Alaska, biologist Mike Pederson is used to encounters with the predator.

But one dark night when he was called out to investigate a sighting of a polar bear straying towards human homes, he had a very close shave indeed.

He had to climb a ridge of sand to get to where the bear had last been seen, and when he got to the top he found it waiting on the other side.

"I saw the black of its nose," he recalls. "And I just started running towards my vehicle, and waited for the bear to move away before I could actually haze it properly without injuring the bear or myself."

Bear deterrents

Hazing is the term used to describe ways to scare away polar bears when they come too close to humans. A variety of methods are used, from flashing lights and sounding car horns to firing an explosive called a cracker shell near the bear.

Conservationists are predicting that such events will become more common in the future as Arctic sea ice, which is the bear's hunting ground, disappears.

According to WWF, in many places in the Arctic, polar bears are spending more time on land during the summer as temperatures warm.

"No matter what you think of climate change or what you think about the politics of polar bears, everyone can agree that polar bear/human conflicts are a bad thing that should be prevented or mitigated wherever they can be," says Doug Clark, of the University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

Professor Clark is among leading polar bear experts from Russia, Norway, Greenland, Canada and Alaska who met recently for a workshop at the Fram High North Research Centre for Climate and the Environment in Tromso, Norway.

Delegates from the polar bear "range states" discussed ways to protect both bears and people under the scenario where they move closer to humans.

"When the habitat disappears the polar bears will visit people more often and there will be more conflict," says Dag Vongraven of the Norwegian polar Institute.

"Local people throughout the Arctic have in many places developed really impressive and innovative approaches for preventing conflicts in ways that work in their specific context.

"So what a workshop like this does is give everyone a chance to share their observations and experience."

Bear country

In parts of Alaska, such as Barter Island on the Arctic coast, visits from polar bears have become part of everyday life, even in the morning when children are going to school.

"They are coming into the communities trying to find food and feed their young," says Mike Pederson of the Department of Wildlife Management, North Slope Borough, Alaska.

"They're getting close to people's porches where they may have seal blubber or seal meat, walrus flippers that are fermenting, which is a delicacy for us. So they're smelling the food sources and they're trying to get to the food sources."

In Alaska, cracker shells and dummy bullets known as bean bags are deployed to move polar bears back onto the ice. The goal to prevent either a person or a bear being harmed.

But these non lethal deterrents are not always successful.

In August 2011, a polar bear was accidently killed by a security guard in Alaska when it approached a compound where oil workers live.

The guard tried to "haze," or scare away the bear, but ended up shooting it.

In the same month, a British teenager on a school trip was killed by a polar bear on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen.

Despite these high profile incidents, there are no reliable statistics on polar bear attacks.

Tourism challenge

Geoff York of the WWF global Arctic programme says the range states are compiling a new database on polar bear/human conflicts to address the lack of consistent data.

"We hope by this fall we will have a mostly populated data system that can start to tell us a little bit about that - what's the history, do we see any trends in numbers?"

He says one way to prevent conflict is to educate humans going into bear country about bear behaviour.

"Most bear biologists and polar bear biologists would say that bears in general are predictable in their behaviour and they give cues to us. It's whether we know how to read those cues, more often than not.

"That being said, there's always the one in 100,000 animals that is less predictable or is in a situation that becomes unpredictable with bears, but there are things that we can clearly teach about bear behaviour. "

As ice loss opens up parts of the ocean, making it easier for ships to come north, this will inevitably bring tourism and industry.

"The more people that are in polar bear country, particularly if these bears are in poor condition, nutritionally stressed, then there might be more conflicts in the future," says James Wilder of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Marine Mammals Management.

"The way to address that is through educating people and taking a data-based approach by gathering information on past bear/human conflicts and taking what lessons we can learn from that and applying that to what we can expect in the future."

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