A polar bear on a gravel beach on Wrangel Island.

Hundreds of polar bears gather on Russia's Wrangel Island during the ice-free period in summer and early fall. A joint U.S.-Russia research project is helping to answer questions about these bears.

© Dr. Eric Regehr

9/10/2019 6:50:53 PM

Return to Russia

By Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation

As I boarded my Aeroflot flight from Los Angeles to Moscow, I thought of my last trip to Russia: an expedition by ship to the geographic North Pole via the Franz Joseph islands from the port city of Murmansk. Logistics were easy as I was essentially flying to the far northwestern edge of the country, barely outside of Norway. This trip to the far northeastern part of Russia is quite another matter.

The necessary partnerships and high-level international support required to successfully study polar bears on Russia’s Wrangel Island began five years ago during meetings focused on  the U.S.-Russia Agreement (Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Conservation and Management of the Alaska-Chukotka Polar Bear Population).

The research we’re conducting on this shared population of polar bears is an offshoot of monitoring studies I helped launch in the Chukchi Sea when I was with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center exactly one decade ago. Much has changed in that time period, both in the Chukchi Sea and in Russia.

Careful planning and prior pilot seasons helped Dr. Eric Regehr from the University of Washington, Dr. Stanislov Belikov from Russia’s Environment Ministry, and our Russian partners from the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve fine-tune the research we could accomplish on the island while also ironing out the logistical and administrative challenges associated with work in one of the more remote parts of the Russia.

Travel beyond Moscow can be both limited and complicated for foreigners. Travel in Chukotka is even more so, and expenses rise with the increased isolation of each stop along the way. Flights are infrequent and generally full, making booking a challenge.

It took five days of travel, including 23 hours of pure flight time, to reach our staging area in Billibino, Chukotka—a remote community of about 5,000 that supports regional mining and hosts the world’s most remote and northern nuclear power plant. Set along a confluence of rivers in rolling foothills covered with birch and larch forest, the area is quite striking in its autumn colors. Overnight temperatures have already dropped to just below freezing, but the black flies have yet to fully recognize the change in seasons.

We still have a four-plus-hour helicopter ride to reach the Island, including a significant hop across open ocean, but for now, we wait. Wrangel Island is a strict Nature Reserve and is considered a sensitive border region for security purposes, so we need special permits before we can continue. Luckily, we also need to sort our field gear and buy food for up to six weeks on the island, so the extra time on the mainland will be well spent.

Language is definitely a challenge for the two monolingual Americans on our team (myself and Eric), but with help from our Russian colleagues, friendly and patient people along the way, and the magic of Google Translate, we seem to be doing just fine. Local stores are small, but well-provisioned. Across Russia, you can see rapid modernization together with classic infrastructure from the 1960s. Even here in remote Siberia, you’ll see massive concrete buildings that appear rather daunting from the outside, but are quite cozy, modern, and functional on the inside. As with my last trips, the people are warm and welcoming to visitors, and we’ve already been asked to speak at the high school English class while in town.

With some luck, we will get the weather needed to make our final jump so we can begin our fieldwork soon. At this latitude, winter is indeed coming.

Dr. Eric Regehr is the principal investigator of the Wrangel Island study; for more information, contact him at eregehr@uw.edu. In 2019, primary funding was provided by the University of Washington, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Polar Bears International (thanks to the generosity of the High Point Community Foundation and Salesforce), the Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve, and the All-Russian Research Institute for Environment Protection. In addition to Regehr, fieldwork was conducted by Ulyana Babiy (Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve), Stanislov Belikov and Angelina Gnedenko (All-Russian Research Institute for Environment Protection), and Geoff York (Polar Bears International).

Learn more about Polar Bears International's support of research projects in Russia.

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