Tag Archives: fatal polar bear attacks

Polar bears are not bloodthirsty killers, says biologist [just don’t forget your gun]

According to records compiled by James Wilder, a US Forest Service biologist, there were only 20 fatal polar bear attacks (out of 73 total attacks) between 1870 and 2014.

That’s what the 14 June 2016 account in the Anchorage Daily News says (“Sea ice has been keeping polar bears and humans apart — until now”). But I think it’s kind of delusional to suggest that a list of recorded attacks, spanning 145 years throughout the Arctic (including Russia), have captured more than a fraction of all actual polar bear attacks – given that many Arctic communities didn’t have reliable communications in the 1970s (let alone the 1870s). How about all the Inuit and Siberian hunters over the years who failed to return home because they were killed and eaten by a polar bear – unbeknownst to anyone?

Alaska PB USGS_marked

Wilder presents these numbers as a basis for saying how concerned he is that a longer open-water season in the Arctic could increase the number of attacks by polar bears – and he’s right, that’s a valid concern now that the global population of bears is so high. Many polar bears plus people in a confined area is never a comfortable situation, as the people of Churchill, Manitoba have learned.

But declining sea ice is not the only scenario that could lead to an onslaught of hungry bears and a slew of fatal attacks, as my new science-based novel EATEN highlights. The truth is that if polar bears don’t get enough food in the spring – for any reason – the ice off the beaches of Arctic communities gives polar bears easy access to human prey. If that happens, people had better be prepared – because doors and windows won’t necessarily stop a determined polar bear.

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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?
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