With late summer in full swing in Anchorage, I boarded the early morning ERA flight to Fairbanks dressed in winter layers for the first time in five months. I expected cold temperatures and some snow when I arrived. During my last September field visit to Kaktovik it snowed most of the time I was there.
My final destination was Kaktovik, Alaska. Kaktovik, or Qaaktugvik (which means “Seining Place”), is located on the north-shore of Barter Island, between the Okpilak and Jago rivers on the Beaufort Sea coast, 60 miles from the Canadian border. Kaktovik is located within the 19.6 million acre (79,000 km²) Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and is home to a majority of Iñupiat people who maintain their subsistence Iñupiat Eskimo traditions.
I came to Kaktovik to gather information on how the pilot polar bear-resistant food lockers that Defenders of Wildlife helped fund were working, and as a volunteer for the USFWS to assist with their polar bear survey work. I was also interested in learning more about the locally-grown polar bear-viewing tourism business.
This time of year, polar bears are traveling from Arctic pack ice and resting on the barrier islands off of Kaktovik during the day. At night, they swim to coastal areas and communities in search of food. They are traveling to Kaktovik and other coastal communities earlier each year due to shrinking sea ice, and they stay longer in and around these communities because the Arctic sea ice forms later in the fall – climate change at work. We completed morning and evening polar bear surveys and observed the visitors watching these iconic arctic marine bears. I recorded data on the bears – how many, their age, gender, locations on land and barrier islands and their behaviors.
Increasing numbers of visitors travel to Kaktovik from late August to mid-October to view polar bears. Local residents are licensed and permitted to take tourists out on their boats to view polar bears on the barrier islands during the day. At night, polar bears can frequently be found at the local bone pile, which consists of wildlife remains from hunting and beach-cast animals that are located a safe distance from a community; polar bears and other wildlife often go there to feed.
While in Kaktovik I met travelers from South-east Asia, Australia, Northern Europe and Africa who all traveled to Kaktovik to experience polar bears in the
wild. The income earned from locally-grown tourism creates jobs in the community while the polar bears being viewed serve as ambassadors for their species.
Being safe in polar bear coastal communities
We learned a lot while surveying polar bears and interacting with community members and visitors. One common theme is repetition and safety. You do the polar bear survey work at the same time and in the same order each day in a safe manner. Polar bears also repeat their behavior, determined to get at a food source like recently-harvested whale meat. So patrollers have to repeatedly and safely herd the polar bears out of town to the beach and the “bone pile” located at the end of the island. There they can feed and safely swim back to nearby barrier islands to rest during the day.
Visitors learn how to be safe in polar bear country through the Kaktovik Youth Ambassador (KYA) Program, which was created to engage youth ambassadors to provide important polar bear safety information and teach visitors how to respectfully interact with their Iñupiat community.
Polar bear-resistant food lockers
I was also in Kaktovik to assess the success of our polar bear-resistant food locker pilot program that we and World Wildlife Fund sponsored. We want to learn from local community members who tested the food lockers. If the lockers were successful, they would be an important tool to reduce food attractants in communities, as this is the first step to reducing human conflicts with polar bears. Early in the survey season, we thought that the food lockers were working. But one polar bear figured out how to damage a locker and gain access to the food stored within. Other polar bears quickly learned from that bear, and by the end of October all the lockers were damaged or destroyed. Though in this case the food lockers didn’t work, we know that the feedback we received will help us understand what improvements should be made to the next generation of these containers.
Going forward, we will work with our partners and the community of Kaktovik and Dr. Brian Hirsch, Solar Technology Markets and Policy Analyst from the Department of Energy on options for sturdier and hopefully renewable energy-powered polar bear-resistant food lockers that will withstand both warmer temperatures and polar bear’s strength.
This will take time, funding and lots of smart people, but the effort and end result will be worth it if we can partner with Kaktovik and other communities living with increasing numbers of polar bears. If we can help them to be safe and have fewer conflicts with these amazing arctic animals, everyone wins.
Karla Dutton, Alaska Program Director