For most of us, polar bears are animals we see only on television documentaries, or, if we’re fortunate, on a trip to a location where they are relatively easy to spot: Churchill, for example, or Svalbard. But for many people living and working in the Arctic, polar bears are not just impressive animals, they are also potentially dangerous predators. Helping such communities to coexist peacefully with polar bears is an increasingly important part of Polar Bears International’s work.

Notwithstanding what the occasional fear-mongering tabloid article might assert, polar bear attacks on humans are very rare. A 2017 paper found records of just 73 documented attacks between 1879 and 2014, resulting in 20 human fatalities. But in small communities such as Arviat in Nunavut, or Wales in Alaska, which experienced fatal attacks in 2018 and 2023 respectively, such events are more than statistical outliers: They are devastating incidents that leave deep scars. 

I recently talked with Geoff York, Polar Bears International’s senior director of science and policy, about some of the issues around coexistence and what PBI is doing to help.

Photo: Madison Stevens

Statistically, those of us who aren’t living in the Arctic might look at the figures and say, “Well, this doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue; it isn’t as if polar bears are running around the Arctic attacking people." But if you are in one of the small communities in the region, such as Arviat or Wales, which have experienced fatalities recently, losing two or three people to polar bears is a devastating blow. Most of us don’t have to worry about looking out for polar bears – or indeed any large carnivore – when we leave our front door, but in many of these communities it’s a very real issue.

Absolutely. That’s why I’ve long said that for me, and for Polar Bears International, it's our moral and ethical obligation. If we're calling for the conservation of this large mammal that can potentially kill people, we had better be active in trying to make sure people have the tools they need to stay safe. And, on the flip side, taking measures to keep people safe helps to keep polar bears safe, too.

How do you see Polar Bears International’s role? Is coexistence work something you have to approach with a degree of humility, becoming involved only if a community asks?

That's very much the approach. Without local leadership, it's just not going to happen, it's not going to take off, it's not going to be successful over time.  So, what we're hoping to do is be a resource for information and a resource for connecting communities with one another – for example, to connect a community that's active and doing cool work, like Churchill, with other regional communities.

Photo: Jenny Wong

You mentioned Churchill, which is of course the most famous example of a community coexisting with polar bears. There hasn’t been a serious attack there since 2013. There hasn’t been a fatality since 1983. There is a Polar Bear Alert program, there are wildlife officers patrolling the community, the dump has been closed, and residents are acutely bear-aware. Is it possible to point to any one of these elements as being what's been the most successful in terms of promoting coexistence in Churchill?

It’s all those pieces and more. In Churchill, you have a fairly diverse community that doesn't have a significant cultural history of harvesting polar bears. And many people supplement their income through tourism or related activities, so you have that built-in understanding of the value of polar bears living and being in the landscape.

Churchill recently adopted a Bear Smart initiative with support from Polar Bears International. How does that differ from the existing Polar Bear Alert program?

A good way to look at it is the Polar Bear Alert program – which is run by the provincial Manitoba government – is primarily a human safety program. Conservation officers respond to bears that have been visibly seen, and they respond to them differently depending on where they are. “There's a bear near something it shouldn't be near. Let's encourage it to move along.” That's their primary role.

With Bear Smart, we have the community stepping up and saying, “How do we keep bears from wanting to come to town in the first place? How do we make sure our garbage is secure? What are we doing from a business standpoint with commercial dumpsters? How are we keeping people safe? As we have population turnover in town, do people know how to be around polar bears and what to do if they encounter a bear?” 

Safety campaigns play a huge role in Churchill’s success, and we support those efforts by producing materials including a safety coloring book for kids, for example, and by funding a recent safety video featuring Churchill locals.

To many of us, Churchill is a tiny place. By the standards of Arctic communities, it’s a metropolis – and, as you say, one whose economy very much depends on healthy polar bears. Is anything from Churchill applicable or transferable to other communities?

The key to me is that more recent piece of community engagement that we just discussed. “What can we do in the town year in and year out? What are the low-hanging fruits that regular people can do to be safe?” Whether that's securing potential food rewards or whether that's getting deterrents into the hands of people so that folks walking around have a quick and easy way to defend themselves. I think those aspects are very transferable. And then there is the safety education side. Churchill has done a great job of continued outreach to people, including children, over living safely with polar bears, and we’ve built on that success by producing safety materials for other communities that have requested them, including coloring books and posters, in both English and Cree, for communities in northern Ontario.

You mentioned deterrents. Nonlethal deterrents like bear spray, flares, and the like can be expensive and hard to procure. Is that part of Polar Bears International’s role, to help get them into remote communities?

I think our role in these communities has three stages. One is the communities themselves simply expressing interest. Two is setting up meetings with those communities to speak with them face to face and ask what their concerns are. And three is doing what we can on the solutions front.

And some of that means supplying tools, including working through red tape. In Canada, bear spray is generally not available in the North. Cans of spray are considered dangerous goods and difficult to ship into remote areas. The same for flares. So, we can help folks with the cost but also with the bureaucracy of getting some of these tools in the North. It’s the same in Norway, where we’re working with people to consider increased deterrent options. In Norway, bear spray is illegal to carry as it's considered a weapon. There may be legislative ways around that; there can be a special dispensation made for specific areas and specific uses, like Svalbard and polar bears if there is enough interest.

Related to that is the need to hold training sessions on how to properly use deterrents, something we do with our own staff as well as with communities that express interest.

 Is eliminating attractants – for example, Churchill closing its open-air dump – the first step for any community wanting to deter polar bears?

I would say step number one is always carry a deterrent or two and know how to use them. Because sometimes people are just out on the land, and you might be doing everything right, but still stumble across a bear at close range. And being comfortable in that situation, and ideally able to de-escalate that safely for everybody is priority number one.

Second on that list is securing food rewards and reducing attractants. There was an elder in a meeting we had on coexistence several years ago, who brought up a very good point: that communities are by their very nature attractants to polar bears. And he's right. When you think of the totality of smells around human activity from us, our foods, and our vehicles – all that stuff smells interesting to polar bears. And we have exhaust fans in our houses that send the smell of whatever tasty thing we're making on the stove outside. So, I think there are always going to be attractants in communities and camps, but what we really need to do is make sure that if a polar bear is curious and comes over and checks things out, it does not get a food reward. Because once that happens, it's like a switch is flipped; that bear will remember getting easy access to something, especially if it's high calorie, and it will both try to come back and be more difficult to deter.

You have to get buy-in from communities to help with polar bear conservation. And to do that, you have to make people feel that doing so is not going to put them in danger. That being the case, is this one of the most important issues that Polar Bears International is working on?

I think it is. And I think it gets back to that responsibility of a conservation organization. If you're saying “Save the Elephants!” or “Save the Polar Bears!” you’d better be working with the people who live with those animals. The goal is for both people and wildlife to live safely with each other and thrive.

Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer who has written extensively about polar bears and the Arctic for publications including National Geographic, The Guardian, and The Washington Post. A native of Bristol, England, he lives in Bristol, Vermont.