Locals, biologists free polar bear caught in fishing net in Arctic Alaska

Kaktovik residents and visiting biologists worked together to free a large polar bear that became entangled in a fishing net near a Beaufort Sea barrier island Saturday night.

The "large male" polar bear got stuck in a net near the North Slope village of about 300 people Saturday evening, the U.S. Geological Survey reported in a Facebook post Sunday.

The area is a common location for seasonal fish camps, where locals catch Arctic char and whitefish. But most people had already pulled up their nets because of the presence of polar bears, who hang out near the village in the fall, said Flora Rexford, a Kaktovik resident and teacher.

The net the polar bear became entangled in was apparently set out in hopes of catching a beluga whale, said Rexford.

When word got around town that a bear was caught, "there was much discussion about how (the town was) going to handle it," said Rexford.

"My dad and mom got into their boat, so did the guy who owned the net," Rexford said.

Biologists with the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first darted the bear from a helicopter, then people in boats "kept the bear from drowning while the tranquilizers took effect," according to the Facebook post from the USGS.

Once the bear was sedated, biologists hastily untangled the bear from the net and released it back into the wild.

"I guess it ended up swimming out toward the sea," Rexford said.

At this time of year, polar bears draw people to Kaktovik, bringing biologists who come to study the bears' behavior as ice on the Beaufort Sea recedes and tourists who come to photograph them. They can also be a threat.

So many come into town at night -- chasing dogs and sometimes raiding Arctic entryways -- that the town has a "polar bear patrol" to haze and shoo the bears away from people.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at mtheriault@adn.com.