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North Slope polar bear dies after hazing shot by guard

Sean CockerhamMcClatchy-Tribune News Service

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement is investigating after a guard at BP's Endicott oil field apparently mortally wounded a polar bear by shooting it with a pyrotechnic shotgun shell in a hazing incident.

BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said Wednesday that the security guard, who works for the contractor Purcell Security, was hazing an aggressive polar bear on the night of Aug. 3 in an attempt to stop it from moving toward a housing unit at the North Slope oil field. He said the guard believed he was firing a non-lethal bean bag round from his 12-gauge shotgun.

The wounded bear remained in the area near the Endicott causeway, coming and going a couple of times, before dying on or around Aug. 15.

Rinehart said the Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a necropsy of the bear on Aug. 16, "and during the course of that they discovered that the bear had suffered a projectile wound that is not consistent with the bean bag hazing round the guard had intended to use."

"When we learned about this we investigated further and we now believe the bear was shot with a noisemaking cracker shell ... that punctured the body cavity and caused internal injuries and led to the death of the bear," Rinehart said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Bruce Woods said the incident is under investigation by USFWS law enforcement and he could not make any comment.

The Endicott facilities are located on gravel pads at the end of a causeway into the Beaufort Sea. It is polar bear territory and BP has Fish and Wildlife Service permits that include a protocol for trained security guards to haze bears away from where they could be a threat.

"The guard was trying to protect people, he was not trying to hurt the bear," said BP's Rinehart. "And beyond that we'll see where the investigation leads. We're doing everything on our end to make any kind of changes to our procedures to make sure this doesn't happen again ... Frankly we feel awful about it."

Rinehart said BP is reviewing its procedures and is going to make sure all hazing ammunition is clearly identifiable by type, packaging, color and labels. He said during future hazing incidents a backup person is going to "examine and confirm the type of ammunition being loaded before it's used."

Polar bears are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and the North Slope is designated critical habitat for them. The Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal agency that's responsible for managing Alaska's polar bear population.

The fact that the animal was allowed to slowly die over the course of more than 10 days near the Endicott causeway didn't sit well with at least one oil field worker who contacted the Daily News and said employees there weren't happy about the situation.

Rinehart said BP reported the hazing to the Fish and Wildlife Service when it happened and gave USFWS regular updates on what was going on.

"We did what we felt we were authorized to do, which is to keep the Fish and Wildlife Service regularly apprised of the bear. They directed us to keep people away from it and to keep other bears away from it, we actually did keep some other bears away from it. And to see what happened," Rinehart said.

Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Woods said it was not a clear-cut situation.

"We were observing the bear during that period and continued to be hopeful the bear would recover," he said. "Anything like drugging it to do a closer exam may have actually made the situation worse."

BP is not disclosing the name of the security guard who shot the bear, only saying he has more than five years experience and was up to date on his required annual bear hazing training course approved by the USFWS. The guard's company, Purcell Security, is a division of NANA Management Services.

"All I can tell you right now is that it is being investigated by the federal Fish and Wildlife and that we're cooperating with that investigation fully," said Helena Hall, an attorney for the security firm.

BP's Rinehart said there's no record of this happening before in BP's North Slope operations over 35 years. He said the incident began when the bear was acting aggressively toward the security guard and his vehicle along the causeway. So Rinehart said the guard started honking his horn, sounding his siren and flashing his lights, following the protocol set up by USFWS. But the bear didn't let up and was moving toward the housing area, according to Rinehart.

That's when the guard fired what he believed was a non-lethal bean bag round at the polar bear, Rinehart said, but apparently fired the cracker shell at it instead. Both are approved ammo under the USFWS hazing protocol, he said, but the cracker shell is supposed to be fired in front of the bear where it explodes like a firecracker and is meant to change the animal's direction. He said BP is cooperating in the USFWS investigation of what happened as well as doing its own.

"These hazing shells look a little bit different from one another and we just don't know the details of the how the guard intended to load one and apparently loaded another," Rinehart said. "That's part of the Fish and Wildlife Service's investigation for sure and will be a part of ours."

Reach Sean Cockerham at scockerham@adn.com or 257-4344.

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By SEAN COCKERHAM
scockerham@adn.com