Polar bear attacks are on the rise thanks to diminishing sea ice, but Alaska's Polar Bear Patrol is doing an incredible job of keeping the peace.
Between the years of 1870 to 2014, there were 73 attacks on humans by wild polar bears across the five countries that comprise their range – Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia, and United States. All told, the attacks resulted in 20 human fatalities and 63 injuries over that period of nearly 150 years.
However, 20 percent of those attacks happened in the last five years of the timespan.With temperatures warming up, we are seeing a lot of species inching northward ... but what do you do when you're already at the top of the planet? The polar bears don't really have anywhere to go. And as warmer conditions melt the sea ice where they have historically hunted seals, bears are heading to shore seeking other things to eat,
Meanwhile, more people are populating those areas – as the Anchorage Daily News reports, there are "increasing numbers of people who are traveling over the landscape or camping on it, working at research or industrial sites and living in communities around the Arctic, several of which are growing in population."
Hungry polar bears coming ashore; more humans poking around ... what could possibly go wrong?
But remarkably, despite the upswing in polar bear attacks in general, Alaska has not had a polar bear attack in 26 years.
What's the state's secret to peace between Ursus maritimus and Homo sapiens? The Polar Bear Patrol Program of Alaska’s North Slope Borough.
And in honor of their work, Polar Bears International (PBI) has announced that the program is being awarded with its annual World Ranger Day Award (July 31). PBI presents the award each year on World Ranger Day, to "recognize the courage and commitment of front-line heroes working to keep people and polar bears safe across the Arctic."
“Members of the North Slope Borough’s Polar Bear Patrols do an amazing job under challenging conditions,” said Geoff York, PBI’s senior director of conservation. “Thanks in no small part to their efforts, there hasn’t been a polar bear attack in Alaska since 1993.”
The patrols keep watch over a group of coastal communities in northern Alaska, all of which are within polar bear habitat. As the sea ice is retreating from the shore, the communities are finding more bears ambling down streets and pilfering from food caches. They come to feed from piles of giant bones in Kaktovik, the leftovers from an Inupiat village’s legal subsistence hunting of bowhead whales. The town attracts the highest number of polar bears in Alaska, as well as tourists who come to catch a glimpse of the ice bears.
When asked how the group were finding such success, Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation at Polar Bears International, explained to TreeHugger:
"The patrols promote bear safety through several tactics, including outreach and education, working to manage food storage issues and other rewards for bears, and they directly patrol and mitigate bears near communities. They use a variety of methods that escalate as needed: visual monitoring of bears near communities; use of vehicles to deter (such as tracks, quads, snow machines); use of cracker shells and other noisemakers to deter; bean bag rounds, and more…"
Last year's award went to Erling Madsen of Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland – a lone wildlife officer "who spends a lot of his time, day and night, chasing polar bears away" from a small coastal town bordering Greenland National Park, where wildlife far outnumbers people.
Originally, World Ranger Day was a day to bring attention to the work of wildlife rangers in Africa and Asia working to protect species like rhinos, elephants, tigers, and lions. Three years ago, PBI brought the idea to the Arctic, creating the World Ranger Day Award to honor those working to reduce conflict between polar bears and people.
“Our goal is to draw attention to the important work of these committed people, whether they’re called rangers, patrollers, or wildlife conservation officers,” York said.
As climate change nudges wildlife onto new turf, and as humans keep sprawling into natural habitats, the opportunities for wildlife-human confrontations increase. Ultimately the best solution would be to quell the climate crisis and let wild lands be wild. But until then, we can be grateful for the people on the frontlines, chasing away bears in an effort to protect people, and thus, protecting the bears themselves.
You can learn more at Polar Bears International.