Two days after a polar bear killed a 24-year-old woman and her year-old son in the Bering Strait village of Wales, community members continued to grieve as questions linger over what may have contributed to the fatal mauling.
Summer Myomick was leaving the Kingikmiut School in Wales with her young son, heading to the village clinic Tuesday afternoon in whiteout conditions with poor visibility, when the polar bear attacked, Alaska State Troopers spokesman Austin McDaniel said.
Their deaths represent the first fatalities from a polar bear mauling in Alaska in more than 30 years.
In a joint statement, the Alaska Nannut Co-management Council, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said they do not know what may have caused or contributed to the fatal attack, but are working together to gather more information about the incident. Troopers weren’t aware of any other injuries stemming from the mauling, McDaniel said.
When school employees heard about the attack outside on Tuesday, students and staff hunkered down inside the building with blinds drawn so the children couldn’t see what was happening, said Susan R. Nedza, chief school administrator with the Bering Strait School District. Several school employees stayed at the front and, at one point, stepped outside with the wind howling.
“A couple of employees were outside and actually hit the bear with shovels to try to get it to go away,” said Nedza, who is based in Unalakleet. “It would not stop its attack and actually followed them as they ran for safety to get inside the school.”
The employees slammed the door on the bear and started calling for help to the clinic and around town, to get somebody with weapons to take care of the bear, all the while “keeping the kids maintained where they were,” Nedza said.
Local hunters — Frank Oxereok’s nephew and another man — responded to calls from the school to help, Oxereok said in an interview Thursday.
“By the time he got there, it was too late,” Oxereok said. “It was too late to save them.”
Myomick and her 1-year-old son, Clyde Ongtowasruk III, died in the attack.
“We care for these two young people — this young lady and her baby was part of us,” Oxereok said. “The whole community is mourning.”
[Crippling grief’: Mother and her young son die in rare polar bear mauling in Northwest Alaska]
After the mauling, school was dismissed, and parents picked up their children from the rear entrance away from the scene. School was canceled Wednesday and is open with limited capacity for the rest of the week, with meals and counseling offered to students.
“Kids are kids, they are resilient, but they need to talk about tension,” Nedza said. “Even if they didn’t see it or hear it or whatever, it’s just a general sadness and all of that throughout the whole town.”
Two days after the attack occurred, Oxereok said he was not comfortable sharing the names of the hunters who stepped up to help.
“I have to respect my nephew, who went through this terrible thing in real time,” he said. “You don’t see this, not even in horror movies.”
Originally from St. Michael, Myomick had spent several years in Wales and dated Oxereok’s nephew, Oxereok said. She was “always smiling” and “had a good heart,” he said.
“She was somebody that didn’t cause nobody trouble. I never heard a bad thing ever since I met her,” he said. “She became part of our family and part of our community.”
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.
Polar bear interactions with people remain exceedingly rare and usually involve either very young or very old male bears, said Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International, a nonprofit conservation group, earlier this week.
The physical condition of the bear involved in the attack wasn’t immediately clear. Rick Green, a special assistant to the commissioner of Fish and Game, said that the state agency is in the process of transporting and analyzing biological samples taken from the bear on Wednesday and should have that information next week. Emma Roach, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said she is “hoping that partners who have been out on the ground have something to share soon” regarding the bear’s condition.
Nedza, who saw the bear in footage recorded by the Wales school camera, said that it looked like a midsize young adult “on the slim side.”
“It was, you know, a midsize bear — not very large, not the biggest I’ve ever seen, but not a cub or anything either,” she said. “Did not look to me like it was in poor condition or anything, but slim.”
[Rare attack in Northwest Alaska renews interest in polar bear patrols]
Researchers have linked the increase in polar bear attacks to diminishing sea ice and more bears on shore, as well as to growing human activity in the Arctic, York said.
Looking at sea ice cameras, York said that extensive sea ice is covering the Chukchi and the Bering seas. But Oxereok said the ocean around Wales just started to freeze and is very thin.
“I’ve lived here over 60 years and this is more like early October than January,” he said. “This is global warming; we don’t have shore ice; that’s why these bears are coming on land, hungry.”
Several seasons ago, Oxereok said he saw a huge female polar bear with two cubs walking close to his doorstep, but “it was a good year, so they just walked by.” Another bear encounter he remembered occurred around 1995 when his oldest son saw a bear shot close to the old post office site.
Oxereok said that residents have not seen animals this close to the village in about two seasons, “but this year it was too close.”
“They are around, you know, but this is tragic this time,” he said.
He said that polar bears don’t attack people unless they are provoked and “see you as food.”
“Normally, a bear would run away. Now they go after you,” he said. “They are hungry.”