Polar bear causes a stir as it passes through Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska

Kotzebue got a close-up sighting of a polar bear this week after it was seen at a fish camp south of the airport Saturday.

Polar bears used to be more common in the Kotzebue area, but their range is largely determined by the ebb and flow of sea ice, which has been retreating to the north in recent decades. Lindsey Mangipane, a polar bear biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, said such sightings are not typical anymore.

“Polar bears are closely tied to the ice and since the sea ice isn’t as far down as it used to be, they tend to stay to the north,” Mangipane said.

For the most part, she said, polar bears tend to range to Point Hope, 150 miles to the northwest, though they do sometimes go farther south if the sea ice offers more opportunities to hunt seals. They also tend to stay away from populated areas, as long as they haven’t been habituated to human food and garbage.

For at least one onlooker, the rare sighting was the opportunity of a lifetime. Lt. Scott Kellerman, a Coast Guard pilot stationed in Kotzebue, is a largely self-taught photographer who has traveled to Utqiagvik with his wife in hopes of seeing and photographing a polar bear. He never guessed the opportunity would present itself in Kotzebue but was lucky to have brought his longest camera lens on his tour north with Mission Arctic Shield.

“I managed to bring my larger super-telephoto lens, which was super helpful,” Kellerman said.

U.S. Coast Guard personnel heard about the polar bear sighting and headed out to the beachside location about 200 yards from the bear. The bear appeared to be sleeping for a time, then went for a swim and returned to land before wandering out of view.

Kellerman said he was wary of the bear while he was taking photographs, staying within reach of the vehicles at all times and with a group of people nearby. When the bear went to take a swim, Kellerman said, he was reminded how fast they can move.

“You can imagine when I saw it, I had a bit of trepidation,” he said. “There was some irony in being so far south and seeing one, but I was grateful I had the opportunity. There’s a little bit of envy from my wife about the photos, though.”

Mangipane said officials haven’t heard of any sightings of the bear since Sunday and hoped it had moved on to a less populated location.

She said the encounter is a good reminder for everyone to keep anything that might attract a bear to town, like garbage, dog food or fish that is drying, out of the reach of animals.

“If the bear does receive a food reward, it’s more likely to come back,” she said. “Preventing that will keep both the bear and the people safe.”