Polar Bear Blog – Kaktovik Alaska

Since Kaktovik seems to be hitting peak bear season (and, of course, peak polar bear politics… ha) while Churchill is just getting ready to roll… here is another take on Kaktovik – this time from Susan Crockford at Polar Bear Science. She drifts a bit too far to the right for me sometimes but provides a needed counterpoint to the doom and gloom club.  Plus, I have to say that she has been a lot more helpful in my requests for scientific papers and information than others in the polar bear community – even though our views may clash at times.

Crockford has sifted through the various articles trickling out of Barter Island and mixed it with some scientific journal quotes… I’ve removed most of the Figures and References so that its actually readable to us non-scientific background types… ha.

And a big thanks to Sebastian Schnuelle for the polar bear photographs from Kaktovik  – you can see more pics and read his blog at www.blue-kennels.com.  Anyway, here is Polar Bear Science’s take on Kaktovik…

“I’ve lived here all my life and there are more bears every year. I read stories about polar bears being on the brink of extinction because of global warming, look out of my window and start to laugh.” Tori Sims, Kaktovik (Mail on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2013).

As you can see, Kaktovik is in the news again. This tiny community sits on the edge of the Beaufort Sea, on Barter Island on the North Slope of Alaska. It lies within the Southern Beaufort polar bear subpopulation, which has been classified as “declining” by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group.

The determination of “declining” was based on a small dip in population numbers between 2001 and 2006 (not statistically significant), plus a decline in body size and condition, and smaller litter sizes documented between 1986 and 2006. A new population survey is underway.

From Ben Anderson and Loren Holmes (Alaska Dispatch, September 22, 2012):

“Every year, dozens of polar bears flock to the Arctic Alaska community of Kaktovik, lured by the potential for feasting on the remains of whales taken during traditional subsistence hunts. …

Kaktovik is a small village sitting on Barter Island, abutting the Beaufort Sea on Alaska’s north coast. About 250 people populate the community, and many still depend on the fall whaling hunts to provide enough food to get them through harsh winters. But even the best-harvested whales have scraps left over, and that draws the bears.

On any given day, dozens of polar bears can be spotted hanging in or around the community, and 2012 set a record for the most bears seen in a single day at 80. The reasons for the fluctuations in bear numbers aren’t yet entirely clear, though scientists are investigating whether a longer season of melting sea ice may hurt the animals.

But it’s not all business when it comes to polar bears in Kaktovik. The island has also become a popular hotspot for journalists and tourists anxious to see and snap photos of the bears in an environment where they’ll occasionally wander into town.”

A story in the Guardian in 2011 (November 16, 2011, “Stranded polar bears at Kaktovik, Barter Island, Alaska – in pictures”) made the following claim:

“During the summer, many polar bears gather to rest and feed on hunter-harvested bowhead whale remains near Kaktovik, on Barter Island. But in recent years, dozens – possibly hundreds – of bears are becoming stranded on the coastal plain because they cannot reach the retreating sea ice.”

Nonsense. Polar bears are not “stranded” on shore because of the retreating ice: a small percentage choose to stay onshore, some choose to go out with the retreating ice. One study (Schliebe et al. 2008) found that from 2000-2005, an average of 3.7% of all bears were on shore for all or part of the early fall and the rest were on the pack ice. They say:

“Across all years and survey dates between mid-September and the end of October, an average of 4 ± 2 bears/100 km (57 ± 28 bears total) were observed. Thus, a maximum of 8.0% and an average of 3.7% of the estimated 1,526 bears in the SBS population (Regehr et al., 2006) were observed on land.”

This phenomenon is evident from the maps of tracks of bears fitted with radio collars by US Geological Survey biologists. Bears have a choice when the ice starts to recede in late July/early August: they can stay on land and scavenge whale carcasses and other carrion until the ice returns, or stay on the ice and continue hunting.

Females who prefer to make their maternity dens on shore probably choose to stay on shore during the ice-free period. Females who prefer to den on the sea ice might stay on land or remain with the ice as it retreats.

Julia O’Malley (Alaska Daily News, September 14, 2013) gives a more recent perspective:

“In the village of Kaktovik, 600 miles north of Anchorage on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, villagers hauled in a whale Thursday. It was a bowhead. The third and last whale of the season.

After it was killed, they towed it to shore. Then the children climbed on it and a biologist took measurements and samples. After that, they rinsed it with seawater and began to butcher with “big, huge knives,” Flora Rexford, a 27-year-old teacher in the village, told me Friday morning by telephone.

That’s when the polar bears waiting on a barrier island not far off shore, slid into the water.

“Once they start cutting, the bears start coming across,” she said.

Once one side of the animal was removed Thursday, the men turned the carcass and began carving the meat from the other side. By then the bears were prowling around, she said. Villagers distracted them by throwing scraps and shot cracker shells that make noise and bright light, Rexford said.

“You just got to keep your eye out. Everybody knows that the bears are coming,” she said. “You just have to keep them away from the people cutting the whale.“

Lastly, and most recently, we have the article with photos from the Mail on Sunday (Sept. 28, 2013) — the piece that my leading quote was taken from: “The poster boys of climate change thrive in the icy Arctic: Polar bears defy concerns about their extinction.”

“Last week I travelled to Kaktovik, Alaska – an Inupiat village of 239 hardy souls on Barter Island at the edge of the Arctic – which has become an unlikely boom town thanks to an influx of polar bears.

Village administrator Tori Sims, 26, beamed as she told me: ‘This has been a great year for the bears.

‘They are fat, happy and healthy. We’re seeing a boom in tourism which brings much-needed revenue to the village and helps us continue to live the traditional life we cherish.

‘I’ve lived here all my life and there are more bears every year. I read stories about polar bears being on the brink of extinction because of global warming, look out of my window and start to laugh.’

In Kaktovik, bear numbers are embraced in the South Beaufort Sea sub-population and the most recent study by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in 2006 reported that numbers had dropped from 1,842 bears to 1,525 over the previous five years. A new study is under way with a report due early in 2014.

But on Barter Island it is a more positive story: official figures have fluctuated from 51, when records started in 2002, to a pitiful ‘low’ of only 18 bears in 2010.

But there were a record 80 bears recorded last year and this year US Fish & Wildlife puts the figure at 58, though locals believe it is higher.

Carla Sims Kayotuk, who heads the ‘nanook patrol’ which keeps the bears out of the village in Kaktovik, said: ‘Bears come and go. They are notorious for going long distances.

‘Authorities say there are 58 but that’s just what they counted here in Kaktovik. They also monitored a wider area from the air and counted 91 bears.’”

So that’s her blog… what I find to be of the MOST interest is how the reporters Susan cites and Sebastian’s firsthand experience can end up with really quite different stories from the locals. This is how it is in the north, as with the south, quite a split in interpretation of our surroundings… pretty neat.

What is really interesting is that both sides kind of miss the fact that the Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears used to spend more time on land and actually den on land. However, hunting and population pressures along the northern coast of Alaska essentially ‘forced’ them to den out on the heavy ice. In reality, most polar bears prefer to den on land and accordingly have a much higher birth rate when they do.

So whether global warming has stranded these bears or the population is growing or whatever, more bears on land in Alaska is likely good news (provided they withstand the hunting pressures of the Inupiat).

I find it just crazy how the Inupiat throw whale meat ‘scraps’ at 50 polar bears to keep them away from town yet Manitoba spends thousands of dollars on raids at Ladoon’s for doing the same with four or five old bears.  Enjoy your time before the State government and NGOs start ‘helping’ you Kaktovik…

Barter Island sure seems to be on my mind these days just as I head to Churchill – I don’t know if I could handle two ‘bear seasons’ back to back though, ha!  Then again, I’ve never been great at making responsible life decisions…

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