Two polar bears on Wrangel Island, Russia.

Russia's Wrangel Island is famous as a polar bear denning site and as a resting place during ice-free summers and falls. This year, researchers counted 367 individual bears on designated transects--including some near research cabins.

© Ulyana Babiy/Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve

12/9/2019 3:13:05 PM

Working in Remote Arctic Russia

Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation

After 11 days of waiting in Billibino, Chukotka, plus five days to get that far, we met our helicopter and began the four-hour flight to Wrangel Island, a remote Russian nature reserve. The island is known for its difficult access, so we were not surprised when we did not end up at our designated drop off: a small outpost for the reserve called Somnitelnaya, where several rangers and the reserve’s lead biologist awaited our arrival. Instead, fog nearly prevented a landing altogether, and just barely allowed us set down on the farthest southwestern point at Cape Blossom.

Luckily for us, there is an older cabin at Blossom, though no longer in frequent use. It would take up to two days for our designated team to reach us, pending weather. We had six weeks of food, but little water, and weren't certain of the fuel situation for heating or cooking. The helicopter crew offered us all their drinking water and a jug of fuel, just in case. Did I mention there were four adult polar bears in the immediate vicinity, with many more not far away?

Armed only with a long stick, a Russian researcher keeps an eye on a nearby polar bear

Armed only with a stick, a Russian researcher keeps an eye on a nearby polar bear. Photo copyright Ulyana Babiy/Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve.

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. In a bright spot of international collaboration, American and Russian scientists are working together on ground-based observational surveys and non-invasive genetic sampling as part of a project led by Dr. Eric Regehr of the University of Washington. The results will be key for monitoring the status of this population and will support research on denning going forward.

The helicopter quickly unloaded our gear and flew south, leaving us to ponder our new situation. The reserve does not allow unaccompanied visitors on the Island, so staff was quickly mobilized to our location. By noon the following day, a biologist working on a musk ox survey nearby was redirected to our little cabin to provide support and communication with the reserve base. 

Later that evening, we were pleasantly surprised by the early arrival of a much larger team, replete with the ATVs we needed for the survey and our reserve project partner and guide, Ulyana Babiy. We quickly sorted our gear and made plans to start from Blossom for a few weeks of survey work. Our team of three people on ATVs would gradually move from cabin to cabin while circumnavigating the island. Our partners from the All Russian Nature Institute would survey the southern parts of the island and meet us at Cape Waring.

The research team on ATVs, scanning the horizon for polar bears.

Researchers scan the horizon for polar bears as part of a population survey. Photo copyright Ulyana Babiy/Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve.

We left Blossom in fall weather conditions with beautiful tundra colors of brown, yellows, and reds. As we moved up in elevation and inland over the next several days, we quickly moved to full winter conditions. Temperatures ranged from a low of -11C to highs around +6 C.

For the next two weeks we rode across gravel beaches and tundra, along rocky streams, and over low mountain passes. We searched for and counted polar bears, covering approximately 700 kilometers of varied habitats over the island. We traveled closer to 900 kilometers in total as we made our way up, over, and around Wrangel, encountering not only polar bears, but also musk oxen, snowy owls, arctic fox, snow buntings, and walrus. We even had the luck to see two wolves one night from one of the cabins.

While on designated transects, we counted 367 individual bears—with many more seen off transect. Poor weather (snow, rain, wind and fog—sometimes all on the same day) combined with difficult travel conditions to reduce our ability to see bears in some areas compared to prior years of the study. We identified observed bears when possible for gender, age class, activity, and body condition. We also collected hair from day beds or hair traps (scented boxes with wire brushes) when possible for genetic analysis. The majority of bears we saw were in good body condition, and it was clear that many had recently fed on walrus due to telltale brown staining around their faces and neck.

A researcher sets up a trap to collect polar bear hair.
Dr. Eric Regehr sets up a hair trap to collect fur samples for possible genetic analysis. Photo copyright Geoff York/Polar Bears International.

Access to potentially significant marine mammal calories during the summer and fall months is one of the things that makes Wrangel unique across the Arctic—and important as a future refuge. Walrus use the shores and rocky capes for haul outs and often number in the thousands. Natural mortalities provide regular carcasses for polar bears and other scavengers. The broader Chukchi Sea is also one of the few northern regions with abundant large whale populations. While variable in location, whale carcasses also strand on the mainland coast of Chukotka and on Wrangel with regularity. Recent research estimates that one large whale is energetically similar to about 1,400 adult ringed seals—that’s a lot of polar bear food!

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).

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