Hungry polar bears and human settlements don't mix. Managing the expected increase in polar bear-human conflicts in a warming Arctic is a top priority of the Polar Bear Range States, a view that PBI shares.

© Daniel J. Cox/Natural Exposures

12/11/2014 3:47:35 PM

Six Young Polar Bears, One Uneasy Village

Our thoughts and hearts go out to the people of Taloyoak, Nunavut regarding the news of increased conflicts with polar bears wandering into town. Sadly, since September, six young bears were killed by residents in defense of life and property.

The CBC News report was preceded by recent incidents on the other side of the Arctic, where in one case a starving and exhausted polar bear cub was rescued by Russian military, and in another, a hungry and persistent young polar bear was airlifted away from a Russian oil depot. In fall of 2013, three people were attacked by polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba-widely known as the polar bear capital of the world. 

So what's going on? Steve Amstrup, our chief scientist, says that while the details of any one event may be uncertain, increased "human-bear incidents" are consistent with the trend of polar bears having progressively less time to hunt because of sea ice declines caused by global warming. The result is a higher number of hungry bears that are more likely to have dangerous interactions with people.

Geoff York, our senior conservation scientist, agrees. "In cases where the bears lack natural foods, we can expect to see spikes in unusual observations such as those witnessed by the community of Taloyoak. Bears venturing into town in search of food will usually lead to negative interactions," York says. "The frequency of incidents like these have long been predicted to increase, and the predictions are coming to pass."

But does seeing more polar bears mean there are more polar bears? Not at all, says Amstrup. "The news reports suggest these bears were young, lean, and hungry. We know hungry polar bears will not just lie down and die. Rather, they will search for alternate foods. There is little food on land for polar bears-except in association with humans. 

"Seeing more bears, therefore, especially in villages, is more likely to reflect a rise in hunger than a rise in bear numbers-as bears face poorer foraging conditions in their natural habitat," he says.

Because polar bear-human conflicts are expected to increase in a warming Arctic, members of the Polar Bear Range States cite managing them as a top priority, a view that PBI shares. This is why PBI is participating in the Range States Conflict Working Group and supports the Polar Bear-Human Interaction Management System (PBHIMS). We are also working with regional partners, industry, and communities to increase both education and capacity to deal with polar bear encounters on the front line.

"Conserving large and potentially dangerous predators is easy from afar, but quite another endeavor when they live in your backyard," says York. "Educating people who work around or live among polar bears about the reasons for the observed increases, and helping them to manage interactions are keys to long-term conservation-keeping people and polar bears safe."

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