Incidents of polar bears causing problems onshore this winter (January & February) – including one that killed a horse in Greenland and another that threatened a resident in western Hudson Bay (only weeks after several incidents in southern Labrador) may be the tip of a very scary iceberg. I’ve taken a look at what records exist of this phenomenon, which in the past often involved deadly attacks. The large number of reports this winter appears to be a real increase, which is a rather terrifying prospect indeed.
In winter, all polar bears except females in dens nursing newborn cubs are presumed by biologists to be on the sea ice hunting but it turns out that is not quite true. Although relatively rare over the last twenty years or so, it appears that in some areas, bears are now coming ashore in winter.
The photo above shows a polar bear photographed by a remote camera installed at Broad River Camp, Wapusk National Park, western Hudson Bay on 7 February 2013. It was visible to the camera for 40 minutes but apparently caused no trouble (camera installed and maintained by associate professor Doug Clark from the University of Saskatchewan and colleagues).
Given the fact that there are now many more polar bears than there were in the 1970s as well as more people living in many coastal Arctic communities, problems with bears in winter are likely to increase, as this winter’s events show. More bears out on the ice in winter (January-March) will almost certainly create more competition for the little bit of food that’s available (seals are hard to catch in winter), which means some bears might increasingly be looking for alternate sources of food onshore.
Most of the records of polar bear-human interactions onshore in winter are from decades ago, some of them the result of an influx of naive outsiders. In part, the 1970s to 1990s were the heyday of oil and gas exploration in the western Arctic and many incidents occurred because men were working in regions where polar bears were common – including out on the sea ice. However, since then, increased populations of residents in many coastal areas mean more attractants exist on land than there would have been in the 1980s and before.
For example, the town of Iqaluit at the head of Frobisher Bay on SE Baffin Island grew from 900 people in 1964 to 6,699 in 2011; Ivujivik, Quebec (at the western end of Hudson Strait) grew from 263 people in 1991 to 370 in 2011 at a time when the local polar bear population was also increasing. In contrast, Nanortalik, SW Greenland (where the horse was killed in February) numbers have fallen from 1,564 in 1995 to 1,337 in 2013 – but it’s still a fairly large community by Arctic standards.
What attracts bears to shore? On land in winter, bears are attracted by caches of frozen meat, odors of cooking food, food fed to dogs, the dogs themselves, stored food, garbage, and perhaps surprisingly, sewage – as well as man-made petroleum products and other industrial material (oils and lubricants, vinyl seats and plastic-coated cables), antifreeze and insulation (Truett 1993).
In addition, there is also a difference between how bears react to people when they are onshore in winter compared to late summer/fall. In one study, Arctic workers and biologists who had dealt with polar bear-human interactions were asked their opinions about the difference between Churchill incidents (which occurred exclusively in late summer/fall) and those that occurred elsewhere (Fleck and Herrero 1988:132). Here is the summary of their answers:
“Three biologists said that Churchill bears during the ice-free season behaved differently than bears out on the sea ice that are actively hunting. Bears at Churchill are not actively hunting but spend most of their time resting and appear to be less likely to respond to people than at other times of the year. One biologist said that males have a much lower testosterone level during the ice-free season and that the physiology of all bears during this season resembles that of a bear approaching hibernation. This implied that they may be less aggressive and less flighty at this time of year.” [my bold]
Research and records I’ve located of bears onshore in winter that are clearly looking for food (i.e., not including incidents involving females with newborn cubs) are listed below by region. However, it’s not an exhaustive list, there are almost certainly more that have gone unreported or that only locals know about – and many reports don’t identify the season of attacks. Just because bears are looking for food doesn’t mean they are starving: only some of the bears involved in incidents were described as thin and pictures provided in others show that the bears involved were in average condition.
A number of incidents have occurred on the sea ice in winter (where men are services oil or gas facilities offshore, for example), which is to be expected. However, we are more interested in reports of bears coming ashore during the winter and causing problems. In part, that’s because few bears in these regions ever come to land, even in summer (Fleck and Herrero 1988:123):
“Very rarely do polar bears remain along the coastline after the ice has melted. Most, if not all, bears follow the retreating pack ice north (Stirling et al. 1981).”
It is also fortunate that there are relatively few communities along this stretch of coast (see map below, Kaktovik is at “Barter Island”), since this region experiences poor seal conditions in spring every 10 years or so – which means many desperately hungry polar bears that might come ashore in search of food.
5 January 1975 Beaufort Sea (Adgo p-25 artificial island [on a barge], 5 mi south of Garry Island in the Mackenzie Delta – close enough to shore for this to count, I think), (Fleck and Herrero 1988:144).
Person: Richard Pernitzsky, rig worker, adult, 18 years old;
Bear: adult (5 years old) male bear, 200 kg, in poor condition with virtually no fat, tagged by CWS 22 March 1974 and weighed 240 kg then. [Note 1974 and 1975 were very tough years in the eastern Beaufort because thick spring ice drove ringed seals offshore or westward – many cubs died of starving and many young adults were in very poor condition]
“Around 9:15 am, Pernitzsky was bent over chopping ice from in front of the door to the sewage treatment building when the bear attacked him. The bear probably used the snowpiles that originated from shovelling snow off the deck to climb onto the barge. Claw marks were seen on the door. Workers were inside within 8 m but no one heard a sound.
The bear proceeded to attack and drag Pernitzsky several hundred m from the barge before stopping to consume him. The bear was found with the remains of Pernitzsky about a 1.5 km from the barge. Vehicles approached and two attempts were made with the flare pistol but the bear just dragged the body farther away. It was wounded several times before it was finally killed after a lengthy chase. There were no firearms in camp. It was dark outside and cold (-45 C). Garbage had been incinerated and the campsite was clean. No bears had previously been seen close to Adgo P-25. Several investigations reported on this incident.”
8 December 1990. At the edge of the Chukchi Sea, a fatality occurred in the early hours of the day in Point Lay. This attack can be attributed as a winter kill given that sea ice had returned to this area by the end of November at the latest. Rather than hunting seals on the ice, this polar bear chose to hunt onshore (Wiig et al. 1995:140):
“The first human mortality caused by a polar bear attack of recent time occurred on December 8, 1990, within the village of Point Lay. The predacious attack occurred in the dark of the early morning hours. The bear was located and killed. A necropsy was conducted by personnel of the North Slope Borough. The bear was extremely lean and no remarkable physical problems were observed. The victim was consumed by the bear.” [my bold]
Western Canada (Northwest Territories)
Gordon Stenhouse and colleagues (1988) determined that only 10% of the 265 problem polar bears in the NW Territories between 1976 and 1986 were killed between January and March – with about half of those (5%) killed in March rather than January-February. Over 16% of kills were made in April-June but the rest were made in summer and fall (July-December). Problem bears that left of their own accord or were successfully chased off were not recorded.
Fleck and Herrero (1988:76) stated:
“For records in which we could determine the party involved, Inuit accounted for 141 (62%) of such interactions and non-Inuit for 85 (38%) interactions. Inuit reported relatively fewer aggressive encounters between December and March than non-Inuit (Fig. 6). Throughout most of the Northwest Territories [Nunavut], polar bears may be legally hunted between December and April. The relatively fewer number of reported interactions may be because a bear causing a problem at this time is shot and included as part of the quota for the settlement and not reported as a problem bear.” [my bold]
Central Canadian Arctic (Nunavut)
According to Fleck and Herrero (1988:84), in Nunavut most attacks resulting in injuries formerly took place between December and March:
“We speculate that this [i.e., winter attacks in Nunavut] may be related to reduced visibility due to long hours of darkness and inclement weather and the fact that bears are active hunters and at their leanest body weight. In Manitoba, almost all interactions only occur between August and November when bears are stranded on shore until ice reforms in Hudson Bay.” [my bold]
Here is one example of a winter attack:
5 January 1985 at Pelly Bay, see map below (Fleck and Herrero 1988:141):
Person: Fabian Oogak, Inuit, male, adult;
Bear: male bear
“On a Saturday night in Pelly Bay, people were at the community hall when children came in shouting that there was a polar bear in town. Fabian heard that the bear was near his house and he rushed out without his parka on and caught sight of the bear. As he ran down the hill towards his home, he lost sight of the bear. It had gone around to the side of Oogak’s house and was feeding at his fish cache.
As Oogak approached, the bear charged. Oogak tried to escape between two houses but slipped and fell. He rolled onto his stomach and tried to play dead. The bear did not bite Oogak right away but then bit him on the shoulder, then the head and then the nape of the neck. After another bite in the upper back, the bear lifted Oogak up and shook him. Oogak then heard a rifle shot and the bear dropped Oogak and ran. Zachary Oogak followed the bear and it was killed. Oogak was medivac’d out. A wildlife officer investigated the incident.”
As noted above, most attacks in eastern Canada (including parts of Nunavut in northern Hudson Bay) occur in summer when the bears are forced ashore by melting ice.
However, twenty years or so beyond the attack summaries provided by Fleck and Herrero, there are many more bears – and more people – in many eastern Arctic communities.
8 February 2006, Ivujivik:
“In February 2006, Ivujivik resident Lydia Angiyou saved her seven-year-old son and two of his friends from a polar bear attack outside the local youth center by sacrificing her body in place of the children. A local hunter named Sirqualuk Ainalik heard and ran towards the sounds and took a rifle and saved her by shooting the bear down as it attacked Lydia. …The presence of a polar bear in a populated area is an unusual occurrence. Angiyou was awarded the Medal of Bravery by the Governor General for her actions.”
This year, we had reports of several bears onshore from mid-January to early February in southern Labrador and footprints of a bear that briefly came ashore were found on Fogo Island (off northern Newfoundland) in that same period.
In southern Labrador and Newfoundland, historically virtually all incidents of bears onshore occur in April and May – after the bears have largely finished gorging on fat newborn harp seals but before the sea ice has completed its contraction north. On the shores of Baffin Island and Hudson Strait to the north, bears don’t come ashore in any numbers until late spring/early summer and so most encounters with people occur from summer into fall.
This year, however, in NW Hudson Bay (see map below), Whale Cove residents dealt with a polar bear prowling around houses in their community in the early hours of Friday 26 February 2016. After being chased off the day before, the bear returned during the night. It acted aggressively when confronted and was shot by local hunters. The condition of the bear was not mentioned, as has been true for all other incidents this winter.
This incident, taken together with evidence of a bear onshore in early February 2013 south of Churchill (in the green park area in the map below) suggests that more bears may boldly venture ashore in winter in years ahead looking for food.
Problem bears in Svalbard in winter were formerly much more common in years when sea ice extended around the west coast of the archipelago (see ice map below for February 1979) because all communities are on that side (Gjertz and Persen 1987).
Now that extensive ice on the west coast is less common in winter, there are not so many winter conflicts around these communities (see map below).
According to Gjertz and Persen, between July 1973 and 1986, there were 50 serious confrontations with polar bears (involving destruction of property, threatening or injuring people or dogs). Ten of these 50 incidents (20%) occurred in January or February, and another seven (14%) in March; the fewest number of problem bears were reported in May and June (a total of three), while the most (8) occurred in December (note that these authors include December in “winter” but most Arctic researchers consider January to March to comprise the winter season).
“Most confrontations occur in the winter. December is the peak month (Fig. 2), possibly because people are just as surprised every year when the first bears show up. November and December are often difficult months for hungry bears because there is usually little ice at this time of year, at least on the Spitsbergen west coast where almost all of Svalbard’s human inhabitants live. Bears may therefore come close to settlements either out of curiosity or in search of food. From January through April there is usually fast ice in the fiords on the Spitsbergen west coast and bears are quite common. Also, this period partly corresponds with the peak season for outdoor recreation. These two combined effects make it the period when serious confrontations most frequently occur.” [my bold]
That means for Svalbard residents, lack of ice on the west coast since about 2001 has significantly reduced the number of serious polar bear incidents. Most polar bears now seem to stay on the east coast, where few humans reside in winter. Note that most polar bears den on east coast islands and most recent conflicts that have taken place have occurred in summer (e.g. here and here but see also here for an incident in March in one of those northwest towns).
In Russia, most of the reports we hear about come from Chukotka (Russian Far East) and most recent incidents have taken place in summer (like the one captured on video below, which appears to have occurred in August or September 2011 (background here) and was not an isolated incident that summer):
Russian researchers and others have complained of increased problems with bears since at least the 1970s but most do not distinguish between attacks in summer from those that occur in winter.
This winter, however, there was this early March report from Chukotka (see map below) but it’s hard to tell if this is really a new phenomenon or an escalation of an old one:
“Amazing footage showing a group of hungry polar bears looking for food in northeast Russia has emerged online.
The video, captured last month in Chukotka, shows the three polar bears rummaging in a bin until they are chased away by a truck.
The filmer later said online that “a hungry polar bear will eat just about anything” and added they often visit the site.”
Aksel Blytmann, of the Greenland Hunters and Fishermen Association (International Human-Bear Conflicts Workshop 2009:14) noted that:
“In the last several years, five polar bears have had to be killed. For example, in Eastern Greenland a bear was hanging around a school. The community called the police and the police called hunters who shot the bear. In South Greenland, there are approximately 300,000 sheep on 50 farms. Polar bears love to eat sheep, resulting in polar bear deaths.” [my bold]
It is not clear if the above incidents occurred in winter or summer, but summer is more likely since this is when polar bear usually come ashore (e.g., in late July of 2014, a female bear and two large cubs attacked the camp of three Dutch hikers in SE Greenland (Tasiilaq, across from Iceland), who were apparently told polar bears did not frequent the area).
Greenland is huge and there are many small and large communities that are all situated in potentially vulnerable positions along the coast (see map above, more here if you zoom in). We generally hear little about what goes on there.
However, this year, we had an incident of a polar bear killing and partially consuming an Icelandic horse in southwest Greenland in mid-February.
Polar bears onshore in winter are usually much more dangerous than those that come ashore in summer – they are usually hungry at that time of year and when they attack, they are less easily deterred. If no help arrives, they readily eat their victims. As populations of bears continue to increase in some areas – and as communities in the Arctic grow – it is likely that winter confrontations between polar bears and people will increase over the coming years. In regions where they are no longer hunted – like Svalbard and Russia – many bears have no fear of humans. As a consequence, the increased danger will fall primarily on local residents rather than tourists, which also means that media attention to the problem is likely to be weak. It’s a consequence of bear conservation that few people talk about publicly.
The premise of my new novel – EATEN – takes that scenario to a terrifying new level, with not a few bears onshore but dozens. Lack of seals in early spring makes the bears desperate enough to attack and eat humans instead. It uses fiction as a vehicle to highlight a potential catastrophe (for both people and polar bears) that has yet to be considered by researchers, conservation activists, and wildlife managers. If you haven’t bought a copy yet, treat yourself or a friend to this fast-paced thriller and help support the work I do here to keep folks informed about polar bear science.
Fleck, S. and Hcrrero, S. H. 1988. Polar bear-human conflicts. Contract report prepared for Parks Canada and Department of Renewable Resources, Northwest Territories. 155 pp. Pdf available online (>50 mb).
Gjertz. I ., Aarvik, S. and Hindrum, R. 1993. Polar bears killed in Svalbard 1987-1992. Polar Research 12:107-109.
Gjertz. I . and Persen. E. 1987. Confrontations between humans and polar bears in Svalbard. Polar Research 5:253-256.
International Human-Bear Conflicts Workshop. 2009. Polar bear focus day summary (compiled by Colleen Matt). November 17, Canmore, Alberta. Pdf here.
Truett, J. C. (ed.). 1993. Guidelines for Oil and Gas Operations in Polar Bear Habitats. Minerals Management Service Alaska, US Dept. of the Interior, Report 93-0008.
Stcnhouse, G. B., Lee, L. J. and Poolc K. G. 1988. Some characteristics of polar bears killed during conflicts with humans in the Northwest Territories, 1976-86. Arctic 41: 275-278.
Wiig, Ø., Born, E.W., and Garner, G.W. (eds.) 1995. Polar Bears: Proceedings of the 11th working meeting of the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialists Group, 25-27 January, 1993, Copenhagen, Denmark. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge UK, IUCN. http://pbsg.npolar.no/en/meetings/