Stranded polar bears on Barter Island, Kaktovik, Alaska. As the Arctic sea ice minimum retreats over 700 miles from the shore, bears must either head north or swim south to land as the ice breaks up. The U.S Fish and Wildlife service working in the area have counted 49 bears within ten miles of Kaktovik, the largest concentration of bears out of the estimated 70 - 80 currently along the Beaufort Sea coastline. The bears represent 5-10 percent of the southern Beaufort population, estimated in 2006 by US Geological Survey to be 1500 bears. The amount of polar bears coming to land is increasing but scientists are still unsure if it is the food source or the retreating sea ice that is the single reason for the increase in numbers over the past decade. Kaktovik resident and Polar Bear guide Robert Thompson says, "A lot of bears showed up just after a big wind storm. Biologists said they saw eight dead polar bears floating in the water. We believe the thin ice broke up beneath them so they had to sink or swim."
Oil giant Shell are also planning to drill offshore in the Beaufort Sea in 2012. Environmentalists are concerned drilling will further slim the bears chances of survival. Cleaning up an oil spill in Arctic waters has not been proven possible,
despite this Shell still claim that they will be able to clean up 95 percent of any oil spilled.
The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service have started a new hair snare DNA sampling program to try to understand the polar bears fidelity. Using a snare attempts to sample individuals without physically capturing or harming the bears. USGS are now genotyping from archive samples, creating a genetic ID of every bear captured over the past 20 years. Patterns of when and where individual animals have been observed are used to estimate survival and population
size. The core demographics have come from such studies. It will however be years before they understand if the same bears are returning to land, if it is by chance or whether some bears are changing their behavior to adapt to the decline of the sea ice. Changes in sea ice, technology and new laws have changed the patterns of the subsistence native bowhead whale hunters so the regularity and location of whale carcasses being left onshore is also a fairly new phenomenon. One of the factors for this change is because whales
were traditionally butchered out on the sea ice. The relationship between the local community and the bears is for now harmonious, but many fear the delicate balance will be tipped in the future. The local community and the US Fish and Wildlife service carry polar bear patrols out daily. FWS are the agency responsible for the management of the bears and participate in training the locals to avoid conflict with the animals. A particular concern is the association of humans with food; food conditioning could result in nuisance bears being killed for the safety concerns of the local residents.
The long-term picture in the Beaufort Sea is that sea ice decline is having a negative impact on the bear population. The local community are benefiting from the bears recent arrival in the way that polar bear tourism has surged with regular streams of visitors throughout the summer months filing through Kaktovik. One sightseeing tour company, Warbelows advertise their guaranteed Polar Bear expedition saying, 'Fly above the Arctic circle to view Polar bears in the wild before they're gone.'
Bears are incredibly adaptive but unlikely to survive as a species onshore. Polar bears are the biggest four legged carnivore on land, almost three times bigger than the brown bears that dominate Alaska's interior. Food onshore is very limited and there is simply nothing comparable to a seal that they catch from the sea ice, which provides a polar bear with a sausage of fat and energy. Although some bears will adapt and survive, according to Eric Regehr from FWS, 'It is inconceivable that 1500 bears can survive and find enough nutrition on shore.'
70° Wildlife and landscapes. Alaska, U.S. Mixed locations.
Wildlife and landscape best of from northern Alaska. All the images have been taking around 70° latitude.