Back in 2017, we famously had National Geographic falsely blaming a starving polar bear on climate change but since then we have been inundated (relatively speaking) with stories of ‘wandering’ bears sighted far from Arctic coastlines. These wandering bears are oddities to be sure but are not in any way an indicator of melting Arctic sea ice or lost habitat, as The Times (UK) has claimed in this latest example (Polar bear treks 1,500 miles south as Arctic hunting zone melts away).
Similar to three other recent examples, from 2019 – in Alaska in winter, in Chukotka in early spring, and Siberia in late spring – this month’s example cannot rationally be blamed on lack of sea ice. This year’s bear took at least eight weeks to travel from the Lena River Delta area of the Laptev Sea to a small village in Yakusk, Russia where it was captured on 11 May, shown below on the map of the route it took included in the story at The Daily Mail (11 May).
The bear was sighted on a number of occasions along its long way south and apparently survived by eating food left outside for dogs. It was on the thin side and hungry by the time it was caught but definitely not emaciated. Apparently, it had a number of confrontations with local dogs in Yakutsk and rather terrified the locals in the village of Dzhebariki-Khaya when it appeared because it was acting aggressively.
According to the Daily Mail account (which has lots of photos and a video):
A remarkable polar bear was finally in captivity tonight after walking a record 675 miles from its Arctic Ocean habitat.
After a six-week effort, authorities eventually caught the beast, which appeared furious that its marathon adventure had come to an end.
In a video, the bear is seen angrily shaking its cramped cage.
The bear’s capture came after it ventured into a remote Russian village yesterday, causing panic among the locals.
Hunters kept the bear at bay for around eight hours after it suddenly appeared in the coal-mining village of Dzhebariki-Khaya. Wildlife specialists flew in by helicopter from regional capital Yakutsk to lure the animal into a cage using seal fat as a bait.
…The bear is already famous for its epic travel adventure – but experts are unsure what made it embark on this odyssey. The bear’s capture came a day after it appeared in Dzhebariki-Khaya.
The time-line provided means the bear had to have left the Arctic coast near the Lena River Delta sometime in mid-March or even earlier. See close-up map of the area below.
[As a side note, I was in Krasnoyarsk shown on the map above during the summer of 2014: it’s an astonishingly modern city of over a million people in one of the coldest regions of Siberia. I was there to help measure ancient and historic wolf skulls. See my photo below of a group of feral dogs we encountered which were common throughout the city.]
If the Laptev Sea bear left the coast towards the end of March, as seems to be the case, that would have been prior to the timing of the birth of ringed and bearded seals at that latitude. Not only is late winter before the birth of seal pups the leanest time of the year for polar bears but its also when sea ice is at its maximum. At late March, the Laptev Sea was still socked in with ice 1.5-2.0 m thick (see chart below).
The fact that it the bear was said to be a young female (perhaps 2-4 years old) tells us most of what we need to know. Young bears are inexperienced hunters and are often unsuccessful at getting enough to eat over the winter when seals are difficult to catch. Moreover, she would have faced competition from older, bigger bears who would have continually driven her away from anything she caught or was able to scavenge (Amstrup 2003; Miller et al. 2006, 2015; Stirling 1974:1196). Such competition would explain why she might have turned to land to look for food, not lack of sea ice from which to hunt.
This means that the ‘scientists’ quoted below by The Times were making up nonsense for the media, who apparently didn’t think to question it. ‘Polar bear treks 1,500 miles south as Arctic hunting zone melts away‘ (The Times, UK: 13 May 2021):
Melting ice cover forced the bear into making the journey, scientists said, which saw her eventually arrive at the coal-mining village of Dzhebariki-Khaya in the Yakutia region of Russia, 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It was the farthest south a polar bear has been seen in Russia, Ilya Mordvintsev, a researcher at Russia’s Academy of Science, said yesterday.
Amstrup, S.C. 2003. Polar bear (Ursus maritimus). In Wild Mammals of North America, G.A. Feldhamer, B.C. Thompson and J.A. Chapman (eds), pg. 587-610. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
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
Stirling, I. 1974. Midsummer observations on the behavior of wild polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Canadian Journal of Zoology 52: 1191-1198. http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/z74-157#.VR2zaOFmwS4