Wildlife

Polar bear cub wandering North Slope oil field is captured and sent to Alaska Zoo in Anchorage

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A lone polar bear cub that was wandering the Prudhoe Bay oil field was recently evacuated and sent to the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced.

It was a rare and drastic step because removal of polar bear or any marine mammal from the Arctic is permanent. In this case, the bear — which was first spotted in late November in the Prudhoe area — was becoming habituated to people, officials said. Additionally, it was not learning survival skills from its mother; typically, polar bear cubs are nurtured by their mothers for up to 2 1/2 years, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The decision to remove this bear from the wild was not made lightly,” David Gustine, leader of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s polar bear program, said in a statement. Removing a bear is not a good outcome for the individual or the wild population, but we felt it was the best course of action in this situation.

The cub found at Prudhoe, a male estimated to be 10 or 11 months old, had been seen eating a fox, Fish and Wildlife and Alaska Zoo officials said in the statement.

That is not surprising behavior for a polar bear on land, said Amy Cutting, vice president for conservation at Polar Bears International, a nonprofit organization.

“They’ll eat just about anything,” she said.

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But it is far from ideal for the young bear. “That sort of behavior, we know, isn’t enough for polar bears to survive because they need that high-fat diet,” Cutting said.

Polar Bears International, which promotes conservation and science, was not among the organizations that participated in the bear cub evacuation, though its experts were interested in the event.

Polar bears usually prey on seals, though a significant portion of the Southern Beaufort Sea population has come to depend on bowhead whale scraps left on beach sites after Iñupiat hunters butcher their harvests.

Encounters with foxes also could have exposed the bear cub to rabies, officials said. The cub is being checked for that and other possible problems while it is in quarantine at the Alaska Zoo, Patrick Lampi, the facility’s executive director, said in the Fish and Wildlife Service statement.

The cub was in good shape, despite its circumstances and despite being only 105 pounds, a little smaller than the typical weight of 130 to 220 pounds for that age, Gustine said.

Cutting said she has been able to see video of the bear in its quarantine at the Alaska Zoo. “It’s really cool to see that he’s already playing,” she said. “That’s sending a great signal that he’s thriving.”

The orphaned cub was the first since 2013 to be removed from the North Slope. Then, a different male cub was captured in Point Lay after a hunter shot its mother. That cub, which became named Kali, was taken to the Alaska Zoo and eventually transferred to the St. Louis Zoo.

Before then, a 4-month-old orphaned female cub was moved from the Alpine oil field area west of the Prudhoe Bay field, Gustine said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has also assisted in the rescue of at least seven stranded walrus calves from 1999 to 2017. In the most recent case, a calf found in Nome was sent to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward for rehabilitation, and then transferred to the Indianapolis Zoo.

Where the bear will wind up is yet to be determined. Zoos around the country, including the Alaska Zoo, are members of a species survival program network, through which they coordinate placement of rare animals like polar bears, Cutting said.

Though the first choice is for polar bears to stay wild, “we believe that modern zoos do provide a high quality of life for bears,” she said.

It is not highly unusual for polar bears to become orphaned, as maternal bears occasionally die or become otherwise separated from their young, Cutting said. “What’s unusual is for humans to find it,” she said.

In the future, those discoveries may become a little more common.

Polar bears are being squeezed by two climate-change factors, she said: the reduction of sea ice, which has pushed them to spend more time on land, and the increasing human activity in their habitat. That means there may be more repeat occurrences of the Prudhoe Bay polar bear evacuation, she said.

“We’re not going to see a rash of orphaned bears in the area, but we may encounter this situation more often,” Cutting said.

Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.

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