Two people tragically died yesterday afternoon after an attack by a polar bear in the village of Wales on the Bering Strait. Few details are available and bad weather apparently hampered officials getting to the village immediately.
As expected, virtually all news reports are implying that a generic ‘lack of sea ice’ can be blamed for the incident. As usual, the specifics of this case show this claim is not only nonsense, but dangerous.
With the loss of sea ice and the ocean staying open later in the year, polar bears have been spending more time on land, which increases the chance of human encounters, said Joseph Jessup McDermott.
Polar bear attacks in winter are almost always associated with a bear that has not been able to resume feeding in the fall. More bears and restricted hunting means more young bears (as well as old bears or sick ones) become food stressed because they can’t compete with big mature males for food. Mature bears often steal any seals that young bears are able to kill, making the youngsters desperate for food.
The Chukchi Sea polar bears are currently thriving and numbers may still be increasing (AC SWG 2018; Conn et al. 2021; Regehr et al. 2018; Rode et al. 2014, 2015, 2018).
More details to follow on this horrific incident as they become available.
UPDATE 18 January 2023, 5:30PM PT: According to an Associated Press account, the victims were a 24 year old woman and her one-year old son: “Summer Myomick of Saint Michael and her son, Clyde Ongtowasruk, were killed in the attack, Alaska State Troopers said in a statement.”
No more details were provided on the state of the bear involved (sex, age, body condition). Regarding the blame-game, even though recent studies have shown that ringed and bearded seals in the Chukchi Sea are doing very well (Adam et al. 2019; Crawford and Quakenbush 2013; Crawford et al. 2015), Geoff York from Polar Bears International suggests there may not be enough seals for polar bears or the something may be wrong with the sea ice:
In this case, even though there is ice in the Chukchi and northern Bering seas, the quality of that ice is not known that well. More importantly, York said they don’t know what’s going on under the ice — or what the availability of seals and other prey is for polar bears.
The changes are also happening in winter, when people assume they are safe from polar bears being on shore.
“Communities may no longer be,” York said.
From the Alaska Daily News report (17 January 2023):
A polar bear killed a woman and boy Tuesday afternoon in the Northwest Alaska community of Wales, according to Alaska State Troopers. Troopers received a report of a polar bear attack around 2:30 p.m., troopers said in an online report.
According to initial accounts, a polar bear came to the village and chased several residents, troopers said.
The bear killed a woman and a boy, troopers said. Another Wales resident shot and killed the bear “as it attacked the pair,” troopers said.
The two people who were killed in the mauling weren’t identified in the report, and troopers said officials are working to notify their next of kin.
Austin McDaniel, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Public Safety, said troopers are coordinating with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as they try to send personnel to Wales as soon as the weather allows.
Wales — a predominantly Inupiaq village of fewer than 150 people — is located on the far western edge of the Seward Peninsula bordering the Bering Strait, just over 100 miles northwest of Nome.
…Some communities in Alaska — for example, several on the North Slope — have had polar bear patrols to keep residents safe. That’s not currently the case in Wales.
“Wales does not currently have an active Polar Bear Patrol Program due to lack of government funding, unlike the North Slope,” McDermott said, “but this is something that ANCC has sought to pursue with other (nongovernmental organizations).”
There is ample sea ice in the region at the moment:
AC SWG 2018. Chukchi-Alaska polar bear population demographic parameter estimation. Eric Regehr, Scientific Working Group (SWG. Report of the Proceedings of the 10th meeting of the Russian-American Commission on Polar Bears, 27-28 July 2018), pg. 5. Published 30 July 2018. US Fish and Wildlife Service. https://www.fws.gov/alaska/fisheries/mmm/polarbear/bilateral.htm pdf here.
Adam, R., Bryan, A., Quakenbush, L., Crawford, J., and Biderman, L.2019. Bearded seal productivity in Alaska using harvest-based monitoring, 1975-2016. Poster presentation, Alaska Marine Science Symposium, 28 January-1 February.
Abstract: Declines in arctic sea ice extent, thickness, and duration are projected to negatively impact bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus) by reducing their time to rest, pup, nurse, and molt on sea ice. Existing population estimates for bearded seals in Alaska cannot be used to detect trends; however, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game works with Alaska Native hunters to collect data from the subsistence harvest that are used to determine several population health indices, such as: pregnancy rate, age of maturity, and the proportion of pups in the sampled harvest. These indices were previously used to determine if declines in sea ice have affected bearded seals between 1975–1984 and 2003–2014.
During these time periods pregnancy rates varied minimally (92–99%); however, the average age of maturity decreased from 4.2 years in 1975–1984 to 2.9 years in 2003–2014. Additionally, pups were harvested in lower proportions during 1975–1984 than during 2003–2014 (26% and 48%, respectively), indicating that pups are still being produced, weaned, and are surviving to be harvested. Through 2014, we have not detected the decreases in population indices that have been predicted to occur with climate change. However, due to continued declines in sea ice, further monitoring is important; therefore, here we update our 1975–2014 results to include samples from 2015 and 2016.
Cameron, M. F., Bengtson, J. L., Boveng, J. K., Jansen, J. K., Kelly, B. P., Dahle, S. P., Logerwell, E. A., Overland, J. E., Sabine, C. L., Waring, G. T. and Wilder, J. M. 2010. Status review of the bearded (Erignatha barbatus). NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-211.
Conn, P.B., Chernook, V.I., Moreland, E.E., Trukhanova, I.S., Regehr, E.V., Vasiliev, A.N., Wilson, R.R., Belikov, S.E. and Boveng, P.L. 2021. Aerial survey estimates of polar bears and their tracks in the Chukchi Sea. PLoS ONE 16(5): e0251130. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0251130 OPEN ACCESS video: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0251130.s003
Crawford, J.A., Quakenbush, L.T. and Citta, J.J. 2015. A comparison of ringed and bearded seal diet, condition and productivity between historical (1975–1984) and recent (2003–2012) periods in the Alaskan Bering and Chukchi seas. Progress in Oceanography 136:133-150.Regehr, E.V., Hostetter, N.J., Wilson, R.R., Rode, K.D., St. Martin, M., Converse, S.J. 2018. Integrated population modeling provides the first empirical estimates of vital rates and abundance for polar bears in the Chukchi Sea. Scientific Reports 8 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-34824-7 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-34824-7
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. D., R. R. Wilson, D. C. Douglas, V. Muhlenbruch, T.C. Atwood, E. V. Regehr, E.S. Richardson, N.W. Pilfold, A.E. Derocher, G.M Durner, I. Stirling, S.C. Amstrup, M. S. Martin, A.M. Pagano, and K. Simac. 2018. Spring fasting behavior in a marine apex predator provides an index of ecosystem productivity. Global Change Biology http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.13933/full
Rode, K.D., Wilson, R.R., Regehr, E.V., St. Martin, M., Douglas, D.C. & Olson, J. 2015. Increased land use by Chukchi Sea polar bears in relation to changing sea ice conditions. PLoS One 10 e0142213.