© Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

3/16/2018 4:01:41 PM

Keeping Polar Bears and People Safe

By Geoff York, senior director of conservation

What causes a polar bear to attack? How can attacks be prevented? And what are the best ways to defuse potentially dangerous encounters?

For wildlife managers and people who live and work in the North, knowing the answers to these questions is critically important for successful co-existence with polar bears. And it’s become a key issue in a changing Arctic.

Last month, I traveled to Fairbanks, Alaska to take part in the Biennial Meeting of the Parties to the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, also known as the Polar Bear Range States. Since 2009, the Range States have held regular high-level meetings among the five polar bear nations (Greenland, Norway, Canada, the U.S., and Russia) to share the latest information on polar bears and work collaboratively on international conservation measures.

Polar Bear Conflict Taskforce

The job of the Range States is often carried out by its working groups between these meetings, and often out of view. These groups are thematically focused and comprised of government and non-governmental partners with expertise or experience in specific areas. Most of their work is accomplished remotely, though they also hold face to face meetings annually. For the last two years, I had the honor and responsibility to chair the Conflict Working Group. This year, we took advantage of the Range States Meeting to hold our own workshop just ahead of the Fairbanks gathering.

In 2009, the Range States recognized the need to address increasing human-polar bear interactions resulting from expanding human activities in the Arctic along with an increase in the number of bears on land due to retreating sea ice. The initial focus of our working group was to gather data on polar bear attacks across the Arctic—both recent and historical—and to analyze their causes, evaluate responses, and share that information with Range States members.

The data and insights gained laid the foundations for best practices across the polar bear nations. Going forward, we will build on that work.

What Lies Ahead

Since the last Range States Meeting, our group continued to meet by phone and convened two in-person work sessions. We’ve maintained an active and representative roster of members, adding expertise from academia, industry, and regional governments since 2016. Our group has continued to invest considerable efforts and resources in maintaining the data system initially created (largely due to the leadership and financial support of the U.S.), while searching for more modern methods, an effort led by Norway and other members. A promising alternative is a spatial monitoring and reporting tool aptly named SMART. Polar Bears International and WWF funded an effort to customize this system for polar bear incident data collection, and Norway has agreed to test it later this year.

Our group has also moved forward with data analysis and some new research. Last year I coauthored a comprehensive paper on polar bear attacks, working with lead author James Wilder of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It was published in 2017 and was recently listed as the most discussed paper in the Wildlife Society Bulletin for that year.

We are also gathering data on successful deterrents—including best practices for bear spray, one of the safest and most effective tools we have. Dr. Tom Smith of Brigham Young University is finalizing research on the impacts of temperature, wind speed, and canister age on bear spray performance—long issues of concern in the North. James Wilder is leading another new effort, this one focused on the collection and analysis of all known incidents where bear spray was deployed during a polar bear-human interaction, with a published analysis planned for this year.

Looking ahead, our taskforce will continue to coordinate applied research on new detection and deterrent tools. We will also develop consistent, data-informed polar bear safety recommendations for use across the Arctic. Finally, we will develop and maintain a comprehensive list and assessment of deterrent and exclusion tools as a resource for the five polar bear nations and will modernize and increase data collection efficiency.

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