Polar bear tracks in snow

Photo: Robert Sarren

Polar bear tracks near the village of Barrow, Alaska. More frequent polar bear visits in communities across the North Slope are a cause for concern for residents.

A Native Lens on Polar Bears

By Dr. Hannah Voorhees



11 Jun 2017

At a recent meeting with biologists and social science researchers, Joe Kaleak, an Iñupiaq from Alaska’s North Slope, explained that hungry polar bears often try to break into his house, attracted by his seal oil supply—a fairly recent problem. With changes in the sea ice, Kaleak and community patrols in his village now must deal with polar bears on a regular basis. 

Other Native experts from across the region told similar stories. They explained that, in addition to wider ecological changes, the impacts of the changing polar bear presence in their communities—and the different behaviors of those bears—are of great local concern.

Polar bears have long been a “cultural keystone” species for Iñupiaq subsistence communities. In totality, the Alaska Native experts who attended the March 18th meeting at the USGS office in Anchorage, Alaska, contributed hundreds of years of cumulative knowledge about polar bear behavior, as well as more recent insights into unusual polar bear occurrences.

Together, they’re helping to shape the future of a new local knowledge project about polar bears in the northernmost part of the state.  

Polar Bears International is partnering in this effort, called “Contemporary Iñupiaq Knowledge of Polar Bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea,” with funding by the North Pacific Research Board and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. As an anthropologist from Alaska, I’m organizing and managing the project in collaboration with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management.

Alaskan Native experts sitting at a meeting table

Photo: Robert Sarren

Alaskan Native experts shared insights on polar bears at a recent meeting in Anchorage.

As the Arctic rapidly loses its summer sea ice, polar bears are losing critical habitat in Alaska, but gaps in scientific knowledge about how this change is affecting polar bears remain. Alaska has two subpopulations of polar bears: the Chukchi Sea and southern Beaufort Sea bears. Of these, the latter is the best-studied scientifically, but local perspectives on polar bear ecology in the region have not been documented since the early 1990s, long before climate change came to be recognized as an existential threat.

Alaska Native subsistence communities that overlap with southern Beaufort Sea polar bear habitat have observed the bears over time, and can attest collectively to changes in their feeding habits, physical condition, seasonal movements, and local abundance, as well as to the nature of human-bear interactions.  

At the meeting, I joined biologists and social scientists in listening to Alaska Native experts explain the best ways to approach Elders and other polar bear experts in their communities for interviews in order to document this knowledge accurately and respectfully. Alaska Native experts in attendance included Nora Jane Burns, Fred Tagarook Sr., and Joe Kaleak (Kaktovik), Moses Nayakik (Wainwright), and Bobby Sarren (Barrow). Taqulik Hepa, Billy Adams, and Andy Von Duyke generously contributed to the planning process, with Billy also serving as an Inupiaq translator for Elders in attendance.

Based on their extensive experience living and working the region, both Taqulik Hepa and Susi Miller (USFWS) recommended conducting Traditional Knowledge interviews as life histories centering on polar bear encounters, stories, and memories. In keeping with this advice, our interviews, which we will carry out in conjunction with community subsistence and social calendars within the next eight months, will center on maps of each village and their surrounding hunting territory, populated with local place names.  Everyone at the meeting agreed that within an open-ended, map-based interview approach, certain topics, such as sea ice (and its affects on bears), seasonal movements, human-bear interactions, ice seals, and polar bear condition would be the most important to cover. 

A map showing Alaskan villages and polar bear populations

This map, created by Dr. Karyn Rode of the USGS, shows the locations of the villages taking part in the study as well as the boundaries of the polar bear populations in and near Alaska.

Larry Carpenter, chair of the Canadian Northwest Territories Wildlife Management Advisory Council, made a special trip to this research planning meeting to share his community’s recent mirrored experience with documenting the ecology of southern Beaufort Sea polar bears across the Canadian border. Larry explained how the Inuvialuit Game Council’s research included youth in all interviews with Elders to ensure that knowledge would be passed down in the course of the ethnographic work, an approach that will be followed on the Alaskan side as well.

Additional important project advisors in attendance included Dr. Karyn Rode, who helped guide the meeting, and Dr. George Durner, both with the U.S. Geological Survey. Dr. Henry Huntington, of Huntington Consulting, offered critical insights on social science design. Geoff York, senior director of conservation for Polar Bears International, a key organizer of this project, attended the March 18th meeting via teleconference.