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.
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.
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
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.