© Anastasia Petukhova
7/31/2020 1:47:15 PM
World Ranger Day Award 2020
By Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation
As our helicopter landed on the only visible part of fog-shrouded Wrangel Island in the fall of 2019, we counted four polar bears on a short stretch of shore, including one that poked its head from an old shack near a little used cabin.
Landing in the midst of polar bears on a remote Russian island was a bit unsettling for our small research team, led by Dr. Eric Regehr of the University of Washington, but thanks to the excellent track record of the nature reserve’s rangers, we held our concerns in check.
Russia’s Wrangel Island Nature Reserve is home to one of the largest gatherings of polar bears in the world. The rangers who work in this remote and challenging environment follow a unique program to keep polar bears and people safe, one that involves a deep understanding of polar bear behavior—and not a single gun.
This year, in recognition of the staff’s extraordinary achievements in preventing conflict between polar bears and people, we’re honoring the team with our annual World Ranger Day Award, presented each year on World Ranger Day, July 31st.
Two polar bears stroll on the shore of Wrangel Island. During summer and fall ice-free periods, hundreds of polar bears seek refuge in the nature reserve. Wrangel Island is the primary denning area for the Chukchi Sea population, so while some bears come for refuge during the ice-free season, others are looking for a place to den over the winter. Photo copyright Ulyana Babiy.
Located in the Chukchi Sea 200 kilometers north of the mainland, Wrangel Island is critically important to the Alaska-Chukotka polar bears, a population shared by the U.S. and Russia. Most adult females in this population build their maternal dens on the island and polar bears of all types use the protected area as a refuge during the expanding ice-free season each summer and fall. While four rangers alternate spending the winter on the island, most staff are located in the community of Pevek, where the reserve also has its main support office.
A ranger shelters in an island cabin after a long day's work. Due to its remote location, the only communication reserve staff have with one another is through single sideband radio, often a very weak link. Radio check-ins are not only critical for safety, but socially important for the team over their six- to eight-month season on the island. Water must be hand carried and cabins are a mix of simple shelters that require continuous vigilance for bears and modern cabins with solar electric that are raised from the ground and have fortified windows and doors, allowing for more restful living. Photo copyright Ulyana Babiy.
By adapting methods from the Chukchi people who inhabit coastal and interior Chukotka, along with more modern tools and techniques developed by current and former staff, the reserve has created a highly successful program for managing a variety of interactions with polar bears. Unlike many other front-line managers, rangers here carry no firearms, despite sharing a small island with bears that can number in the hundreds or higher in some years. Instead they are trained to interpret polar bear behavior and to use an escalating set of responses depending on the situation. Tools range from simple aggressive body posture and noise-making, to the careful use of a long rigid pole or staff, or handheld flares and marine rescue flare pistols. Staff typical work together or in teams to safely keep bears and people at safe distances, relying on early intervention and constant vigilance.
Dozens of polar bears congregate to feed on a whale carcass near the island's shore. Despite the large number of bears in the nature reserve, staff rangers have a remarkable track record in keeping polar bears and people safe. Photo copyright Alexander Gruzdev.
Given their dedication to protecting the bears and other wildlife of Wrangel Island along with their impressive record of safety and innovative approach, Polar Bears International is proud to recognize the team with this year’s award. The honor comes with a plaque and an assortment of gear from Canada Goose.
Past recipients of our World Ranger Day Award include the late Vladelin Kavry of Russia’s Umky Patrollers; Churchill, Canada’s Polar Bear Alert team; Wildlife Officer Erling Madsen of Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland; and the North Slope Borough’s Polar Bear Patrols in Alaska.