Kaktovik, AK has a polar bear problem but not because bears are desperate for food

PBS has published a bizarre poor-starving-polar-bears story that uses pictures of fat, healthy bears to illustrate the supposed desperation of malnourished bears of the Southern Beaufort Sea that is blamed on declining sea ice.

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The photo of the fat bear above, taken by the Kaktovik resident quoted in the 15 October 2016 PBS story, Polar bears, growing desperate for food, threaten native Alaskans, accompanies this statement:

“While images of malnourished polar bears have become a national symbol of the effects of climate change, they are a front line reality for Native Alaskans, who face them on their own property and do not want them to get hurt.”

Except this is not a story about starving bears but too many fat bears hanging around one particular community looking for other kinds of food – after being lured in by the enticing smell of rotting whale meat left onshore by the residents.

If photos of starving Beaufort bears existed that PBS could have used to illustrate this story, I’m certain those photos would have been used. But virtually all of the pictures I’ve seen of Kaktovik bears are the epitome of health – fat and sassy – but none that could be described as starving.

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It turns out that while native Kaktovik residents have profited from tourists and journalist who have shown up in droves to view the large numbers of bears attracted to the bone piles left after butchering summer-caught bowhead whales, the bears have also put the community at risk of personal attack and loss of stored food. Who would have thought?

Residents of Kaktovik (see map below) have unwittingly enticed these polar bears ashore and now must deal with the consequences. As the residents of Churchill discovered decades ago, having polar bears close to your community comes with benefits, problems – and danger.

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There is no doubt that Kaktovik has a polar bear problem but it cannot plausibly be blamed on anthropogenic global warming, retreating sea ice, or starving bears – an irresistible attractant close to the community is the cause and solutions must be found to keep residents safe and their food secure. The PBS article discusses a few of those solutions. Some quotes and background below.


USGS researcher Todd Atwood is quoted in this story as saying:

There’s some evidence that shows that bears that are nutritionally stressed are more bold,” said scientist Todd Atwood, who researches polar bear behavior at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Except the bears feeding at Kaktovik bone piles in recent years are not nutritionally stressed (the photos are evidence of that), so their “boldness” cannot be blamed on being desperately hungry. Polar bears are always looking for food, even when they are fat and healthy.

Two recent studies showed that while more polar bears came to land during the ice-free period in the Southern Beaufort between 2010 and 2013 (and stayed longer than they did in the late 1990s), there were no negative effects on polar bear health or survival from spending ~ 2.5 months onshore vs. 1.5 months even though the bears lost weight (Atwood et al. 2015; Whiteman et al. 2015). A similar result came from work in the Chukchi Sea – less summer ice meant more time on shore for a larger number of bears but without negative effects on health or survival (Rode and Regehr 2010; Rode et al. 2013, 2014).

An earlier paper on polar bears attracted to whale bone piles in Barrow (Heereman and Peacock 2013) found that bears visited all through the fall (starting in November 2010) and continued into the dead of winter (February 2011).

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Kaktovik, Alaska (on Barter Island) has been attracting significant numbers of polar bears ashore in summer since the early 2000s (Miller et al. 2006, 2015), as have a few other locations. Most whaling at Kaktovik is now done in the late summer (September) rather than the spring or fall (October), in part due to sea ice changes but also because bowhead whale numbers are higher than they have been in a century.

Kaktovik residents are adapting to those changes by shifting the primary season of the hunt earlier in the summer – and unfortunately, that has had consequences for polar bears as well as the people. Bears have learned by experience in recent years that it may be worth their while to stay ashore over the summer rather than stay on the ice as it retreats.

Here is what Miller and colleagues (2006: 1) had to say about those changes (my bold):

In 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) began flying aerial surveys along the Beaufort Sea coastline between Cape Halkett and Jago Spit near Barter Island (Figure 1) during the fall open water period (September-October) to determine the distribution and abundance of polar bears in the central Beaufort Sea coastal area. Results indicate that the majority (73%) of polar bears observed in 2000-2004 were located within 12 km of Barter Island, where unused portions of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) were deposited by Kaktovik residents during fall whaling.

The population of Kaktovik was 293 residents in 2000, most of whom are Native (U.S. Census Bureau 2000). Bowhead whale hunting has been and continues to be an important part of the local culture and lifestyle (Jacobson and Wentworth 1982). Recent fall bowhead whale harvests were first recorded at Kaktovik in 1964; since 1989, two to four whales have been harvested annually (Koski et al. 2005). The majority (64%) of whales are taken between September 1 and 20 (Koski et al. 2005). In recent years, a significant trend towards earlier harvest has occurred, probably because of improved hunting techniques and equipment, and perhaps also because the size of the bowhead population is increasing, and whales may be more numerous near Kaktovik early in the hunting season (Koski et al. 2005).

More on Kaktovik bears here (and here), with quotes from past stories and links to more pictures, and on the status of SB bears here.

References

Atwood, T.C., Peacock, E., McKinney, M.A., Lillie, K., Wilson, R., Douglas, D.C., and others. 2016. Rapid Environmental Change Drives Increased Land Use by an Arctic Marine Predator. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0155932. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0155932 pdf here.

Herreman, J. and Peacock, E. 2013. Polar bear use of a persistent food subsidy: Insights from non-invasive genetic sampling in Alaska. Ursus 24(2):148–163. Pdf here.

Miller, S., Schliebe, S. and Proffitt, K. 2006. Demographics and Behavior of Polar Bears Feeding on Bowhead Whale Carcasses at Barter and Cross Islands, Alaska, 2002-2004. Alaska Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Study MMS 2006-14, US Dept. of the Interior, Minerals Management Service, Anchorage. Pdf here.

Miller, S., Wilder, J. and Wilson, R.R. 2015. Polar bear–grizzly bear interactions during the autumn open-water period in Alaska. Journal of Mammalogy http://jmammal.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2015/09/10/jmammal.gyv140
DOI 10.1093/jmammal/gyv140

Rode, K.D., Douglas, D., Durner, G., Derocher, A.E., Thiemann, G.W., and Budge, S. 2013. Variation in the response of an Arctic top predator experiencing habitat loss: feeding and reproductive ecology of two polar bear populations. Oral presentation by Karyn Rode, 28th Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium, March 26-29. Anchorage, AK. Abstract below, pdf here.

Rode, K.D., Regehr, E.V., Douglas, D., Durner, G., Derocher, A.E., Thiemann, G.W., and Budge, S. 2014. Variation in the response of an Arctic top predator experiencing habitat loss: feeding and reproductive ecology of two polar bear populations. Global Change Biology 20(1):76-88. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.12339/abstract 

Rode, K. and Regehr, E.V. 2010. Polar bear research in the Chukchi and Bering Seas: A synopsis of 2010 field work. Unpublished report to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior, Anchorage. pdf here.

Whiteman, J.P., Harlow, H.J., Durner, G.M., Anderson-Sprecher, Albeke, S.E., Regehr, E.V., Amstrup, S.C., and Ben-David, M. 2015. Summer declines in activity and body temperature offer polar bears limited energy savings. Science 349 (6245):295-298. Supplemental Material here. Abstract here.

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