Polar Bear, © Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Stock

An Arctic Alliance

Karla Dutton, Alaska Program Director

Wildlife conservationists often view the success of their work solely in terms of species protected or habitat saved or restored. Certainly these are worthy and necessary goals to strive for. But what many folks do not factor in are the people who live in these habitats and who rely on some of these very same species for nourishment and economical wellbeing, and to sustain their cultures. These same people also have a unique knowledge of these species based on their many years — often generations — of observations. I believe we will be successful in sustaining habitats and species only when we work respectfully with the communities that call these places home.

Our partnership with The Alaska Nanuuq Commission (ANC) is a great example. The ANC was formed in 1994 so that Alaska’s Native people would have an active and meaningful role in the conservation and management of Alaska’s two polar bear populations in the Chukchi Sea and Southern Beaufort Sea. Alaska Natives have thousands of years of history with polar bears, which has led to a deep respect for the bear as a cultural symbol, a hunter, and a timeless part of the landscape. Polar bears rely on sea ice habitat, which is critical to raising young, finding prey and traveling. Now, due to rising global temperatures, sea ice melts earlier each spring, and forms later each fall, impacting the bears’ migration and access to prey. In 2008, polar bears were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The ANC represents 15 coastal villages, many of which are faced with increasing numbers of polar bears coming into their communities and campsites. Defenders and the Commission are both interested in reducing conflicts between humans and polar bears in Alaska communities. Some of these animals are just passing through. Others, stranded on land for longer periods, are looking for alternate and less nutritious sources of food, since decreasing sea ice has made their main prey, ice-dependent seals, harder to come by. Defenders and ANC both recognize that if the same methods that keep people and their families safe also protect polar bears, then more polar bears will survive. With fewer human-polar bear conflicts, polar bears have a better chance of surviving, despite the challenges posed by climate change, and their survival allows the Alaska Native people’s culture and way of life to continue.

Polar Bear

A polar bear on sea ice.

Defenders of Wildlife Alaska staff are working on developing and spreading the word about ways to help polar bears and humans coexist. In 2010, we funded a report called Sea Bear Under Siege, which details the plight of polar bears in Alaska and offers recommendations on how to best assist them as they navigate the arctic meltdown and continued loss of the sea ice that is so critical to their long-term survival.

In 2011, we worked closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Marine Mammals program to develop and deliver a workshop on polar bear diversionary feeding. This involves moving or placing food sources (such as marine mammal carcasses) away from human settlements to reduce human-bear conflicts. This international workshop shared tools and techniques used by polar bear managers in Russia, Canada and the U.S. to inform decision-making in Alaska. Jack Omelak, Executive Director of the Alaska Nanuuq Commission, also participated in the workshop. He found it very useful, and asked Defenders to play a role in the commission’s development of a human and polar bear interaction strategy. Defenders assisted the ANC with developing their Polar Bear Deterrence Needs Assessment in July and August 2011. The assessment contains feedback from the 15 ANC coastal villages, and the results informed the ANC’s strategic planning going forward. One of the priorities identified was a polar bear deterrent workshop.

Now we’ve teamed up with The Alaska Nanuuq Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Marine Mammals polar bear staff and the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic Program to develop and host a polar bear deterrent workshop to be held next month. This workshop brings together the Alaska Nanuuq Commissioners from 12 of the 15 coastal villages (from Kaktovik to the villages of Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island) along with Russian counterparts who are also addressing human conflicts with polar bears in their communities. At the workshop, all of these groups will share tools, tips and management ideas with the Nanuuq Commissioners so that they can spread these methods to their communities. As more people use these techniques and tools, they can be replicated and refined so that we all learn how to better coexist with polar bears.

This workshop represents something larger and more important than a single event. The partnerships forged, the trust built and the knowledge shared — whether it be traditional and local ecological knowledge handed down through many generations, or the tools western science brings — means that polar bear conservation decisions made going forward will be better, stronger, more equitable and I believe better for polar bears, their habitat and the people that call their world home.