Daily Archives: January 21, 2013

Extirpated polar bears of St. Matthew Island spent five months on land during the summer

[Jan. 27, 2013: a follow-up to this post is in progresshere.]

Did you know there used to be resident polar bears on two small islands in the Bering Sea? Given how much we don’t know about the polar bears of the Bering Sea, the bears that used to den and spend their summers on the St. Matthew Islands are a bright spot. These islands lay at the southern-most limit of the modern “Chukchi Sea” subpopulation (see Fig. 1) and were uninhabited by people when they were discovered in the 1760s – but they were a haven for polar bears.

We have details of the polar bears that gave birth and summered there because a US government biologist (Henry Wood Elliott) and a US navy Lieutenant (Washburn Maynard) surveyed the islands in 1874. Elliott wrote both an official report and a popular magazine article (for Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization) in 1875 describing the polar bears they saw; Maynard wrote a separate report in 1876. By 1899, there were none left, victims of the relentless slaughter of polar bears everywhere in the Arctic in that era (see previous discussion here).

Figure 1. St. Matthew Island is in the Bering Sea off the west coast of Alaska: north of the Pribilofs and south of St. Lawrence Island, at about 60°N latitude. Compare this to the southern end of James Bay, Canada – which has a stable population of polar bears – at about 53 0N and Churchill, Manitoba – the “polar bear capital of the world” – at 58 046’N. Maps from Wikipedia.

Figure 1. St. Matthew Island is in the Bering Sea off the west coast of Alaska at about 60°N latitude. Compare this to the southern end of James Bay, Canada (which has a stable population of polar bears) at about 53 0N and Churchill, Manitoba (the so-called “polar bear capital of the world) at 58 046’N. Maps from Wikipedia.

Figure 2. A drawing of polar bears on St. Matthew Island that accompanied the May 1, 1875 Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization article written by Henry Elliot. See here.

Figure 2. A drawing of polar bears on St. Matthew Island that accompanied the May 1, 1875 Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization article written by Henry Elliot. See here.

Continue reading