A lone polar bear strides across a snowy landscape

While having a few bears wander near the coastal community in Russia is normal, having 50 or 60 at once, and having them linger, is uncommon and of concern.

© Craig Taylor/Polar Bears International

12/6/2019 8:08:24 PM

Polar Bears Converge Near Russian Town

By Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation

Reports from local authorities and polar bear patrol volunteers show that over 60 polar bears are lingering near the coastal community of Ryrkaipy in Chukotka, Russia—disrupting daily life and setting residents on edge.

Polar bears traditionally migrate along the Chukotka coast at this time of year, waiting for the sea ice to refreeze so they can get back to hunting seals. Ryrkaipy has become a routine summer haul-out location for Pacific walrus, some years numbering in the tens of thousands along Cape Schmidt, which is adjacent to the community.

Each autumn, volunteers with the polar bear patrol gather walrus carcasses (natural mortalities from the summer) that are near town and move them to diversionary feeding sites to give the bears access to this natural food, away from the community. In most years, the walrus carcasses, combined with active patrolling, have helped keep the community safe from polar bears.

This year is different, however, and the situation residents now face is one that communities across the Arctic are concerned about. As summer sea ice continues to hit historic lows, polar bears in many areas are spending longer times onshore and in larger numbers. 2019 saw record breaking low sea ice extent in the Chukchi Sea (see graphic below). While that ice has started to refreeze, the growth has been sluggish to date and seems to have hit a plateau in November, especially in the region of Chukotka. There is still significant open water in the Chukchi and north of the community.

November Chukchi Sea Ice chart

Graphic: Zachary Labe

Polar bears that summered along the Chukotka coast may be moving eastward in search of more substantial ice. The occurrence of walrus carcasses near Ryrkaipy would be both a strong attractant and a powerful reward for them to linger. While having a few bears wander near the community is normal, having 56 at once, and having them linger, is uncommon and of concern. Most of the bears photographed appear to be in good body condition, so with some luck, current colder weather, and ice formation, they should soon return to their preferred habitat on the frozen sea.

Historically, the Chukchi Sea would be ice-covered by now and bears would be out hunting seals. Looking at ice maps (below, the region in question is in the upper left of the map), while there is a band of coastal ice, it is narrow and likely unstable given the open water still to the North. It also seems that November storms broke up some of the ice that had formed, so this may simply be a case of delayed ice formation and bears waiting for a more stable platform combined with the availability of marine mammal carcasses near the community. The question is, how long will the bears be onshore waiting for ice, and what will they do when they have depleted the walrus carcasses?

Map of Northwest Passage

As the past chair and an active member of the Polar Bear Range States Conflict Working Group, Geoff York is intimately involved with efforts to reduce potentially dangerous encounters between polar bears and people, a growing problem in a warming Arctic.

How Polar Bears International Helps

Education and outreach. PBI works to help keep people and polar bears safe, with outreach on best practices for avoiding attacks. These include eliminating rewards such as open garbage dumps, installing bear-proof garbage cans, and adding additional lighting. Other measures include being prepared with deterrents such as bear spray, signal flares, or other noise-makers.

Research. PBI is studying the effectiveness of using surveillance radar to detect approaching polar bears, with alerts warning northern communities before a bear enters town. The radar works even in whiteout snowstorm conditions and at night. PBI also helped with research on the best deterrents and with compiling a history of polar bear attacks, including their causes, with a goal of mitigating or avoiding future conflicts.

World Ranger Day Award. Polar bear patrols work on the front lines in their communities to help prevent negative encounters. Our annual World Ranger Day Award recognizes the dedication and courage of these officers. Past recipients include Vladelin Kavry of the Umky Patrol in Chukotka, Russia; the Polar Bear Alert team in Churchill, Canada; Erling Madsen of Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland; and the North Slope Borough Polar Bear Patrols, United States.

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