Rural Alaska

‘Crippling grief’: Mother and her young son die in rare polar bear mauling in Northwest Alaska

polar bear, bear, kaktovik, arctic, arctic ocean

A mother and her young son died Tuesday in an extremely rare attack by a polar bear in the Northwest Alaska village of Wales, the state’s first fatal polar bear mauling in more than 30 years.

Alaska State Troopers on Wednesday identified the victims as 24-year-old St. Michael resident Summer Myomick and 1-year-old Clyde Ongtowasruk.

Troopers said reports of a polar bear attack came in around 2:30 p.m., with initial accounts describing the bear chasing several people before a Wales resident shot and killed the animal “as it attacked the pair.” Myomick was walking with her son between the school and the Wales clinic when the bear attacked them, troopers said.

Bering Strait School District officials say the mauling occurred next to the front entrance of Wales’ Kingikmiut School building, which the bear threatened to breach.

The principal and other employees rushed people into the school after the animal was spotted, the district’s chief school administrator, Susan R. Nedza, said Wednesday from her office in Unalakleet, where she was staying in touch with staff in Wales.

“The bear tried to enter with them,” Nedza said, but principal Dawn Hendrickson “slammed the door” to keep it out.

“It’s terrifying,” Nedza said. “Not something you’re ever prepared for.”

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School officials locked down the building and drew the shades, she said. Eventually, they got the word out to the community that “they needed someone to take care of the bear.”

Authorities had not publicly identified the person who killed the bear as of Wednesday afternoon. There was no additional information available about the circumstances surrounding the attack. It’s likely weather in Wales on Tuesday was bad, with poor visibility.

Though the National Weather Service says data from its observational system in Wales has not been working, the nearby station at Tin City on Tuesday saw gusts up to 50 miles per hour, with blowing snow and minimal visibility that would have affected the same area, making for near-whiteout conditions.

A state trooper and an Alaska Department of Fish and Game representative reached Wales on Wednesday to investigate the attack, after poor weather and “the lack of runway lights in Wales” had kept them from flying to the village earlier, according to state public safety officials. The remains of Myomick and her son were sent to the State Medical Examiner Office for autopsy.

Public safety officials say they won’t be able to provide specifics about the bear involved in Tuesday’s attack until troopers and Fish and Game biologists can examine the animal.

‘Very, very sad’

Wales, a predominantly Inupiaq village of fewer than 150 people, is on the far western tip of the Seward Peninsula bordering the Bering Strait, just over 100 miles northwest of Nome. St. Michael, about 200 miles southeast of Wales, is on Norton Sound.

Myomick split time between the two communities, St. Michael city administrator Virginia Washington told the Associated Press.

“It’s very, very sad for St. Michael right now, and Wales,” Washington said. ”She was a very sweet lady, she was very responsible.”

In the wake of Myomick and her son’s death, the community is grappling with “crippling grief,” Nedza said.

The school was closed Wednesday and will be open in a limited capacity the rest of the week, with no academics, just meals and space available for counseling. On Wednesday, the district office dispatched its school counselor to Wales. A behavioral health team from the Norton Sound Health Corp. in Nome was also on its way, another piece of the school district’s mental health plan for supporting students and communities after a tragedy.

“We can’t do what we’d like to do, which is turn back the clock,” Nedza said.

‘My guard would be down’

Fatal polar bear attacks are 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.

Polar bears are at the top of the food chain, the largest land carnivores on the planet and are more likely to enter populated communities or attack groups — as seen when solo bears take on dense herds of walrus hauled out on shore, researchers say.

But interactions with people remain exceedingly rare, said Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International, a nonprofit conservation group, in an interview Wednesday.

“In this case, the bear had chased multiple people, which indicates it’s a bear that’s desperate,” York said.

While there are large areas of open water just south and just north of Wales now — unusual by historical weather standards, but increasingly common in recent years — York said extensive sea ice is covering the Chukchi and the Bering seas.

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“Polar bears should be out on ice successfully finding natural prey — seals, small walrus and other animals in that region — so what this particular bear was doing onshore remains to be seen,” he said. “This was the time of year that I think if I lived in Wales, my guard would be down.”

“As things are changing, we might have to change our attitudes,” he added.

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The Chukchi Sea polar bear population, a group that includes the animal involved in Tuesday’s mauling, ranged between 3,400 and 5,400 animals in 2016, according to an aerial survey estimate published in 2021.

Attacks rising as ice recedes

The number of polar bear attacks in Arctic regions has increased as the ice the animals once traveled in search of prey has gotten more scarce, according to a 2017 study.

Community members in Wales developed a polar bear patrol program in 2014 but discontinued the Kingikmiut Nanuuq Patrol later due to lack of funding, according to 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.

A council representative did not immediately respond to requests for additional information Wednesday.

Farther north, several polar bear patrol crews are active right now, including those in Point Lay, Point Hope and Kaktovik, “because there was some bear sighted” in those communities, said Billy Adams with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management.

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Twenty percent of the 73 known polar bear attacks on people occurred from 2010 to 2014, researchers say. Since then, globally, from 2016 to 2021, three people were killed and seven were injured by polar bears, according to the global conservation organization Polar Bear Range States.

“Encounters between people and polar bears definitely seem to be on the upswing across their range — so in Russia, Norway, Greenland, Canada and Alaska,” said York, with Polar Bears International.

Encounters with humans tend to involve young male polar bears — particularly because they need a lot of calories to support their growth and are more likely to take risks — and very old males, said York, who also co-authored the 2017 study on polar bear attacks.

Historically, the increase in polar bear attacks has been linked to two things, York said: less sea ice leading to more bears on shore, and more human activity in the Arctic, connected to shipping, natural resource exploration, research, tourism and growing communities.

It’s also possible that fundamental changes under the ice might be impacting food availability for polar bears, sending them farther inland to spend more time on shore — fasting or searching for alternative food sources like unsecured garbage, York said.

“Once they find that caloric reward, then they become very difficult to manage,” he said.

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, dog mushing, politics, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the ADN he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.

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.

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