Some communities in Alaska are finding that the once-permanent but now receding Arctic sea ice is stranding some unwelcome visitors - of the polar bear kind. Researchers recently found that disappearing sea ice habitat (which is preferred by polar bears) is leading to unprecedented numbers of polar bears stressed out, stranded on land and wandering into human territory that they once avoided. To deal with the problem, some towns and villages are setting up polar bear patrols to guard human settlements.
Though polar bears rarely attack humans, in small communities along the Alaskan North Slope, paid patrollers are going around in vehicles, carrying firearms to scare off starved bears during whaling season.
They are not allowed to shoot a polar bear however, unless a human life is in danger, thanks to a 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act which forbids it. Grizzlies, yes, polar bears, no: defending your property is not an excuse but Native subsistence hunting of polar bears is exempted.
According to deputy director for the North Slope Borough public works department Harold Snowball, who spoke to the Anchorage Daily News:
Now that once-permanent sea ice along the coast is being replaced by unpredictable young ice, more polar bears appear to find themselves stuck on land.
Over the past couple years, we've probably had anywhere from four or five to almost 20 locked on the land and the ice is just too far out that they don't swim.
After the 2008 listing of polar bears on the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife proposed some guidelines for polar bear encounters in the Federal Register which range from passive deterrence to preventative measures:
Build "bear exclusion cages" with bars at least one inch thick around entryways -- picture a shark cage on land -- so people can step safely outside their homes and look around for lurking bears.
Install gates and various barriers, such as chain link fencing around the bottom of buildings to discourage bears from sneaking underneath.
Seal trash in bear-proof containers and using devices such as air horns or simply gunning a car engine to startle bears away. Using boats or trucks to block approaching bears is suggested.
But these are all ultimately band-aid measures that do not tackle the source of increased polar bear encounters: loss of sea ice habitat caused by global warming. So, it remains to be seen how increasing numbers of polar bear-human interactions will pan out and whether the Arctic patrols will be a temporary measure or part of a more comprehensive scheme to adapt both bears and humans to the ecological fallout of climate change.
More on Polar Bears
Polar Bears on Thin Ice
Melting Ice Increasing the Chance of Polar Bear-Human Meet-Ups
Starving Polar Bears Turning to Cannibalism
Global Warming Not the Only Thing Threatening Polar Bears
US Department of Interior Lists Polar Bear As Threatened