Bears are one of humanity’s oldest and most deadly predators. While larger species existed in the past (such as the tremendous cave bear), today’s polar bear is still one of the biggest to ever exist: a tremendous Arctic predator that can exceed 2,000 pounds and 12-feet-tall. To such a beast, humans are small, easy prey. Which is why northern civilizations have known bear patrols as a part of life for centuries.
But what happens when a people becomes comfortable or modernized to the point where such attacks are mere history or “impossible”? Tragedy.
At 2:30 PM on Tuesday, Jan. 17 in Wales, Alaska (a village within the state’s Seward Peninsula), a polar bear appeared out of a fierce “white out” blizzard. Charging into town, it mauled and killed 24-year-old Summer Myomick of Saint Michael and her 1-year-old child, Clyde Ongtowasruk. Their deaths are the first to occur in the state from a polar bear in 30 years. And for those three decades, bear patrols have not been a part of life.
‘There’s Absolutely Discussion Now in Wales’ Over Polar Bear Patrols
“There’s absolutely discussion now in Wales, saying, ‘Hey, maybe things have changed to the point that we need this, and how do we do that?’” offers Susan Nedza, chief administrator for the Bering Strait School District, for AP following the pair’s deaths.
Bear patrol can mean many things. It can mean the hunters who stood watch at village gates in the distant past. Today, it can mean heading out atop snowmobiles and ATVs armed with spotlights, loud sounds, and beanbag shotguns. Or, in the case of a peculiar Canadian town, polar bears that simply aren’t afraid of all-the-above are trapped and placed inside an air-conditioned “polar bear jail” until they can be transported back out onto Arctic sea ice as AP’s Gene Johnson and Mark Thiessen report. And each tactic works, so far as we know, in preventing maulings and fatalities.
Further investigation of the Jan. 17 incident would reveal that Myomick and Ongtowasruk were not out wandering the wilds, either. The mother and son were simply walking between their village’s school and clinic when the polar bear attacked.
Attacks on humans by the species remain remarkably rare. But as these bears bears lose their natural habitat at an alarming rate, they’re moving inland in search of food and solid ground. Warming of Earth’s Arctic region is, in short, forcing starving bears into human civilization (and further south) than ever before. They’re in search of prey, and humanity fits the bill.
Bear Patrols Around the Globe
In August of last year, a polar bear attacked and injured a French tourist in Norway. Polar bears are also beginning to mate with brown bears in increasing numbers within Alaska, leading to documented cases of “Pizzly bears” as recent photos show. These two species typically do not share habitat, as they have evolved to conquer completely separate ecosystems. But as Earth changes, animals adapt.
And as polar bears find their way further and further south, towns like Ryrkaypiy in Russia’s remote Chukotka region are increasing bear patrols that involve planting walrus carcasses far outside of villages to keep them at a distance. This increased in 2019 after an astounding 60 polar bears entered Ryrkaypiy.
In Canada’s Arviat of the Hudson Bay, bear patrols are a proven deterrent that have drastically reduced the number of human-bear conflicts since 2010. Elsewhere in the Hudson Bay area, Churchill police and wildlife agents patrol by ground and helicopter to protect trick-or-treaters on Halloween to this day.
Wales can and will learn from each of these instances, as the town prepares to protect their residents from any further polar bear attacks.