Rural Alaska

Polar bear sightings prompt North Slope officials to encourage precautions among residents

Polar bears spotted recently around North Slope communities prompted wildlife officials this week to urge residents to take precautions and report sightings.

A curious polar bear showed up “right at Alaska Airlines’ front door” in Utqiagvik late Wednesday night, said Billy Adams with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management.

The Nanuq Patrol Team responded and made the bear leave the area. The building in town where the animal was spotted is near Barrow High School and the airport.

“We were happy it went away before something serious happened,” Adams said.

The bear was young and relatively small — 5 or 6 feet tall — and most likely came to town out of curiosity, Adams said. The polar bear patrol team responded to a call from a resident who saw the animal close to midnight that night.

Utqiagvik resident Laura Simmonds said Friday that she saw polar bear tracks outside her home, 50 feet from a playground.

“Just three weeks ago, my kids were playing hide and seek outside with the whole neighborhood and we didn’t have to worry about them,” she wrote in a message. “Now I feel it’s limiting them to playing in the neighborhood, not knowing if there will be another bear in our area.”

The wildlife management department alerted residents to recent sightings near town in a Facebook post on Friday, inviting anyone who sees a polar bear around North Slope communities to contact them. Wildlife officials also urged the public to never approach polar bears, which are “dangerous and unpredictable.”

Cleaning up trash outside is another precaution people can take to keep bears away, said research wildlife biologist Todd Atwood, who studies polar bears at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center.

“I think the folks in Utqiagvik know very well how to deal with polar bears — giving them a wide berth and being careful when leaving home,” Atwood said.

Simmonds said that in her experience, polar bear sightings are rare.

“This is the first time one has ever come around our home and actually in our area of town,” she wrote. “I’ve heard of bears close to our area and more by the snow fence or lagoon, but not actually in our area.”

[Earlier this year: Polar bear causes a stir as it passes through Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska]

The bears, which visit the North Slope region throughout the year from the Chukchi and southern Beaufort seas, have been feasting on seals and bowhead carcasses along the shore this fall, Adams said.

“They traverse near islands all along the shore, and the lagoons are frozen. They are hunting at the same time,” he said. “That one bear, it came around and it left, and everybody is safe.”

The upcoming darker and colder months will bring even more animals to the area, Adams said.

“Barrow is unique,” Adams said. “There is a lot of food. It’s a great place for polar bears to be around.”

Another reason for polar bears to come off-shore is to look for a den, which usually happens earlier in the year when the sea ice reaches its minimum extent, Atwood explained.

Most of the time, dealing with a polar bear means making sure it leaves the area, but officials respond differently in emergency situations.

“Polar bears, just like humans, get old, and sometimes when they get to a certain age, they lose their mobility, their sight diminishes, and their teeth get broken,” Adams said. “When they can’t hunt more, they come near town, and when that kind of thing happens, the hunter might be able to harvest that bear.”

The Nanuq Patrol Team has two people responding to polar bear sightings now, but the public and North Slope Borough police are helping as needed.

“In Barrow, we have a diverse group of people,” Adams said. “Our job is to protect people and also protect bears around here, and other animals. We try to keep everything around safety.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.