Polar bear causes stir in Yukon delta village

Kyle Hopkins
A polar bear is seen at the Yukon River Delta this month. A few are seen in the area every three to five years.
Emmonak villagers in skiffs photograph one of the polar bears at the mouth of the Yukon River this month. An expert says the bear may have gotten stuck on shore searching for walrus carcasses. The animals could stay on the delta until sea ice returns or head north to catch up with receding ice.
Photo courtesy Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

By the time Philomena Keyes' skiff arrived Tuesday night to see the polar bear near the mouth of the Yukon River, other villagers were already there in boats of their own snapping cell phone pictures.

"We never saw a polar bear before. I mean only in the zoo, but not out in this area," said Keyes, who grew up on the Lower Yukon and heard about the bear over the VHF radio in Emmonak.

She motored toward the Bering Sea with her mother and sons to see the animal -- one of multiple reports this summer of polar bears along the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Such appearances are rare but not unheard of in the region, where a few polar bears are seen every three to five years, said Thomas Evans, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service polar bear program.

Polar bears normally stick to the main pack ice off Alaska's northern coast as a year-round platform to hunt, then follow the expanding ice south during the fall and winter. They normally head north when the ice begins to retreat around late June or early July, Evans said.

The bear or bears spotted in Western Alaska this summer were likely hunting for ringed and bearded seals on ice pans along the nearby coast and were forced ashore when the ice broke apart, he said.

While Evans didn't directly link the bear's appearance to global warming -- the same thing might have happened 20 years ago -- the biologist expects climate change to increase summertime bear sightings along Alaska's shores.

As temperatures change, the more stable multi-year ice shrinks, leaving thinner annual ice, he said. Polar bears will increasingly be forced to stay on the pack ice and follow it out past the continental shelf or come to shore, Evans said.

The sightings this summer extend south from the Lower Yukon toward Scammon Bay, said Patrick Snow, assistant manager for the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

Refuge Manager Gene Peltola, who was unavailable for comment Thursday, suspects there could be three bears in the area, Snow said.

Experts say the stranded bear or bears may be in for a long summer.

Option 1: They can hang out in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where Evans said they likely wouldn't find much to eat and would have to live off fat stores until the sea ice returns and they can hunt seals again.

Or, 2: They can head north and try and catch up with the receding ice.

Their biggest danger right now is going near a village or fish camp and getting shot, Evans said.

Charlie Johnson of Nome said he's heard of other polar bear sightings on the Yukon as recently as last year. The head of the Alaska Nanuuq Commission that represents Alaska Native villages and subsistence polar bear hunters, he said he thinks bears may be getting stuck as they look for walrus carcasses.

Other bears have been stranded on St. Lawrence Island or Nome, he said.

"Several years ago, for about three years in a row, there was bears that were stranded when the ice went out real quick. So it happens."

The bear in Emmonak was among the unknown number of a Chukchi/Bering Sea population that is known to travel as far as 100 miles south of St. Lawrence Island, Evans said. Another roughly 1,500 bears make up the Southern Beaufort Sea population that Alaska shares with Canada.

Even in remote villages above the Arctic Circle, polar bear sightings can be a treat. Along the Lower Yukon, this week's bear was a rock star, with e-mailed photos almost instantly flashing across the state.

Keyes, who lives in Kotlik, was visiting Emmonak to pick up her mother and took the family in her mom's 24-foot skiff to investigate the evening polar bear reports for herself.

Keyes thought it was amazing, though her son was spooked.

"He was telling my mom, his grandma, to hurry, go backwards."

All told, maybe 10 or 15 boats went to see the bear as it swam in a tributary near the mouth of the Yukon and two or three miles from the Bering Sea, said Emmonak resident Nick Tucker.

"Basically (it was) everybody looking at the bear and the bear looking at the people," he said.

Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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