Update: This story has been updated with a new article, Woman and year-old son identified as victims in fatal polar bear mauling in Northwest Alaska.
A polar bear killed a woman and boy Tuesday afternoon in the Northwest Alaska community of Wales, according to Alaska State Troopers.
Troopers received a report of a polar bear attack around 2:30 p.m., troopers said in an online report. According to initial accounts, a polar bear came to the village and chased several residents, troopers said.
The bear killed a woman and a boy, troopers said. Another Wales resident shot and killed the bear “as it attacked the pair,” troopers said.
The two people who were killed in the mauling weren’t identified in the report, and troopers said officials are working to notify their next of kin.
Austin McDaniel, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Public Safety, said troopers are coordinating with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as they try to send personnel to Wales as soon as the weather allows.
Wales — a predominantly Inupiaq village of fewer than 150 people — is located on the far western edge of the Seward Peninsula bordering the Bering Strait, just over 100 miles northwest of Nome.
In winter, polar bears can be found as far south as St. Lawrence Island, occasionally traveling even farther south, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Subsisting primarily on a diet of marine mammals, males can grow to be up to 1,200 pounds, females up to 700 pounds, with no natural predators beyond humans.
Fatal polar bear attacks are extremely rare in Alaska. In 1990, a polar bear killed a man in the North Slope village of Point Lay. Biologists later said the animal showed signs of starvation. In 1993, a polar bear burst through a window of an Air Force radar station on the North Slope, seriously mauling a 55-year-old mechanic. He survived the attack.
With the loss of sea ice and the ocean staying open later in the year, polar bears have been spending more time on land, which increases the chance of human encounters, said Joseph Jessup McDermott. He’s the executive director of the Alaska Nannut Co-Management Council, a tribally authorized organization consisting of the 15 Alaska tribes, including Wales, that have traditionally harvested polar bears for subsistence.
“Over the past few decades, it’s been very, very rare for those types of attacks to occur,” McDermott said. “It’s incredibly tragic it happened.”
While McDermott said the Chukchi Sea polar bear population is healthy, there were accounts of polar bears in Northwest Alaska seeking alternative food sources such as trash. About 10 years ago, residents as far inland as Noatak reported spotting animals, he said.
“While rare instances like a bear showing up in Noatak have occurred in recent years,” McDermott said, “the presence of bears around communities like Wales is a normal and regular occurrence.”
[From 2017: As sea ice gets scarcer, polar bear attacks on people become more frequent]
Some communities in Alaska — for example, several on the North Slope — have had polar bear patrols to keep residents safe. That’s not currently the case in Wales.
“Wales does not currently have an active Polar Bear Patrol Program due to lack of government funding, unlike the North Slope,” McDermott said, “but this is something that ANCC has sought to pursue with other (nongovernmental organizations).”