Polar bears in winter: starving bears and attacks on humans

Winter in the Arctic can be a tough time for polar bears. Between the cold, darkness and ever-thickening sea ice with fewer open leads, polar bears often find that seals are hard to come by.

So it should not be surprising to find out that polar bears are at their lowest body weight at the end of winter (Ramsay and Stirling 1988:613; Stirling 2002:68).

In other words, polar bears lose weight over the winter – not just during the ice-free summer period. That’s why the spring and early summer feeding period is so critical: gorging on young seals rebuilds the polar bears’ fat reserves lost over the winter and packs on even more fat to tide them over the late summer/early fall ice-free period.

Last fall, a potentially serious attack by a polar bear on a Churchill, Manitoba resident on Hallowe’en night (early hours of November 1) got a lot of attention worldwide. Some media outlets suggested that the bear involved in this attack was either starving or so hungry that he was driven to attack. However, this assertion was not supported by any evidence — we simply don’t know whether he was in poor condition or not. While the bear was undoubtedly leaner at the end of October than he was in July, that doesn’t mean he was actually ‘starving.’

So, here’s the question: given that polar bears have a tough time finding seals to eat during the dark and cold Arctic winter and are presumably at their hungriest then, do serious polar bear attacks on humans also happen in winter?

During the winter, all polar bears (except females nursing newborn cubs in their snow dens), are out on the ice hunting seals. That automatically limits encounters with humans during the winter months of December-February.

But Inuit, Yup’ik Eskimo, and other native Arctic residents also hunt for seals in winter, and therein lays the danger. Seal hunters are out on the ice in winter and may look like a seal to a hungry polar bear.

I recently came across some historic reports of winter polar bear attacks that involved people who lived on St. Lawrence Island in the Northern Bering Sea (the “Chukchi Sea” polar bear subpopulation) in the 1880s.

The events revealed in this account would have taken place during the lifetime of the prominent Siberian Yuit polar bear hunter “Kowarin” (Quwaaren) from St. Lawrence (discussed here, who died in 1910) — and before polar bears were extirpated from St. Matthew Island to the south.

St Lawrence island wikipedia marked

Distinguished 19th century naturalist Edward Nelson (in his recently-found 1877-1881 journals) recounts stories about polar bear attacks in winter (reprinted by the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center):

“The Eskimo of Saint Lawrence Island and the American coast are well supplied with firearms which they use when bear-hunting.  In winter, north of the straits, the bears often become thin and very savage from lack of food.

“A number of Eskimo on the Alaskan coast show frightful scars obtained in contests with them in winter.  One man, who came on board the Corwin, had the entire skin and flesh torn from one side of his head and face including the eye and ear, yet had escaped and recovered.

One incident was related to me which occurred near Point Hope during the winter of 1880-’81. Men went out from Point Hope during one of the long winter nights to attend to their seal nets, which were set through holes in the ice. 

While at work near each other, one of the men heard a bear approaching over the frosty snow, and having no weapon but a small knife, and the bear being between him and the shore, he threw himself upon his back on the ice and waited.  The bear came up and for a few moments smelled about the man from head to foot, and finally pressed his cold nose against the man’s lips and nose and sniffed several times; each time the terrified Eskimo held his breath until, as he afterwards said, his lungs nearly burst.

The bear suddenly heard the other man at work, and listening for a moment he started towards him at a gallop, while the man he left sprang to his feet and ran for his life for the village and reached it safely. 

At midday, when the sun had risen a little above the horizon, a large party went out to the spot and found the bear finishing his feast upon the other hunter and soon dispatched him.  Cases similar to this occur occasionally al1 along the coast where the bear is found in winter.”  [my bold]

There have been no reports of recent attacks on people on St. Lawrence Island that I have found but there has been trouble recently with polar bears vandalizing cabins and sheds over the winter. From Alaska Dispatch (22 March 2013), “Roaming polar bears vandalize camps on St. Lawrence Island

“For residents of Gambell and Savoonga, the apex predators have become ace vandals this year, pushing, crashing and breaking their way through cabins and sheds at the villagers’ whaling camps.

“There are a lot of polar bears this year, probably because we have solid ice close to the island,” said Myron Kinkeenuk, a whaling co-captain from the village of Savoonga.

It’s the first time in recent memory that Kinkeenuk has heard of bear break-ins at camps on the south side of the 1,791-square-mile island in the middle of the Bering Sea.

Villagers from both communities say bear sightings seem to be on the rise.

“They are everywhere,” said Melvin Apassingok, the polar bear or “nanook” commissioner for the Native Village of Gambell. As recently as Tuesday, large bears were spotted wandering on the ice and smaller ones were visible near a beach, he said.” [my bold]

None of these bears are noted as being in especially poor condition (i.e., thin or starving), so it may be that they were just curious and not primarily driven by hunger. The vandalism may be the result of bears so well fed that they had time to get into mischief.

It sort of reminds me of the trouble William Barents and his crew had with polar bears in the winter and early spring of 1596-1597 on Novaya Zemlya (in the Barents Sea), see this post. Much of the problems these explorers had with polar bears over that winter could be described as vandalism rather than potentially life-threatening attacks, although luck may have played a part in that.

[Barents’ crew did experience a predatory attack during their previous voyage (1594), although it occurred in late summer (6 September), not winter — two men were killed by a “great leane white beare” on the shore of a small island in broad daylight (De Veer, 1609:62)]

Wikipedia has an annotated “list of fatal bear attacks in North America [accessed Jan 3, 2014] that lists a young man mauled by a polar bear in early January 1975 in the Eastern Beaufort and a fatal consumptive attack in early December 1990, in western Alaska [the man was eaten]:

Richard Pernitzky, 18, male January 5, 1975 Inuvik, Northwest Territories Pernitzky was mauled at an Imperial Oil exploration site. The bear was later shot and killed. [Montreal Gazette]
Carl Stalker, 28, male December 8, 1990 Point Lay, Alaska While Stalker was walking with his girlfriend, he was chased and consumed in the middle of the town. The bear was shot and killed near Stalker’s corpse. [Seattle Times]

Apparently a worldwide database of polar bear attacks is being composed (Polar Bear News 2010:7-9; Polar Bear News 2013-2014:6-7), but it is unclear how far back in time the registry will go.

According to a recent report in The Guardian (November 27, 2013):

“The governments of America and Norway are working to assemble a database of bear attacks across all five polar range territories – Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia – in anticipation of a rise in such conflicts.

To date, there are 110 recorded instances of polar bear attacks causing severe injury. James Wilder, the US fish and wildlife agency biologist overseeing the registry, said that number should be set against the “thousands and thousands – probably tens of thousands – of nonviolent encounters with polar bears” across the north.” [my bold]

The historic attacks of humans by polar bears on St. Lawrence Island are a reminder that these bears can be just as dangerous in winter, if not more so, than they are in the late summer and fall.

It’s possible that the data will show that serious predatory attacks by polar bears on humans (that result in death, near death and/or consumption), are more prevalent in late winter – when bears are at their leanest – than they are in the fall (when most bears are still in relatively good condition after their spring/summer feeding). However, we’ll have to wait and see what the final document on polar bear attacks looks like before we’ll know for sure.

Montreal Gazette, 8 January 1975. Man mauled by polar bear. Page 2. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=LxQyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=2qEFAAAAIBAJ&pg=868,1397014

Polar Bear News. 2010. Polar bear newsletter of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Anchorage, Alaska. Pdf here.

Polar Bear News 2013-2014. Polar bear newsletter of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Anchorage, Alaska. Pdf here.

Ramsay, M.A. and Stirling, I. 1988. Reproductive biology and ecology of female polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Journal of Zoology London 214:601-624. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-7998.1988.tb03762.x/abstract

Seattle Times, 12 December. 1990. Alaska polar bear hunted down following deadly attack – animal had dragged away villager. http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19901212&slug=1109098

Stirling, I. 2002. Polar bears and seals in the eastern Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf: a synthesis of population trends and ecological relationships over three decades. Arctic 55 (Suppl. 1):59-76. http://arctic.synergiesprairies.ca/arctic/index.php/arctic/issue/view/42

De Veer, Gerrit. 1609. The Three Voyages of William Barentsz to the Arctic Regions (English trans.). http://archive.org/details/cihm_18652 [downloaded Dec. 19, 2012]

Lots of bear attack stories in these two summaries:

Human-Bear Conflicts Workshop. 2009. 3rd International Bear-Human Conflicts Workshop: Polar Bear Focus Day Summary. November 18, 2009, Canmore, Alberta. Summary (with lots of general bear attack stories) and presentations available at: http://www.cfc.umt.edu/humanbearconflicts/

Human-Bear Conflicts Workshop. 2012. 4th International human-bear conflicts workshop summary. March 20-22, Missoula, Montana. Summary (with lots of general bear attack stories) and presentations available at: http://www.cfc.umt.edu/humanbearconflicts/ Summary pdf here.

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