Little did wildlife biologist James Wilder understand the hype surrounding bear attacks and climate change when he agreed to serve as lead author on a scientific paper examining polar bear attacks on people in the seven nations of the Arctic.
He has a much better idea now.
“Polar bears hurt by climate change are more likely to turn to a new food source — humans,” screamed the headline in the Washington Post.
“As sea ice gets scarcer, polar bear attacks on people become more frequent,” headlined the somewhat more sedate Alaska Dispatch News,
Neither story noted how rare attacks in the 49th state. There have been six recorded since 1870. The last polar bear attack was in 1993 – 24 years ago, Wilder said in a Friday telephone interview.
Grizzly and black bears combine for more attacks in the 49th state in a year than polar bears account for in more than two decades. So far this year, black bears have killed two people, and grizzly bear attacks have injured at least five. There have been no polar bear attacks.
Wilder admitted to being “a little frustrated with the (polar) media coverage.”
As the lead author on the study – which was begun to document an uptick in polar bear attacks in recent years – Wilder thought reporters might contact him for perspective before drawing conclusions from the paper.
He was wrong. Badly wrong.
Over the top
“Polar Bears May Add More Delicious Humans to Their Diet Thanks to Climate Change,” reported Complex.com, a New York-based website devoted to pop culture, sports and style.
“I’ll stand for a lot of things, but polar bear slander is not one of them,” twentysomething, Los Angles-based Trace William Cowen wrote for the website. “So when I noticed this ‘story’ about our beloved bears of the polar variety possibly going full human eater thanks to climate change, I was skeptical. Sadly, the headlines are true. Polar bears may very well waltz up and munch on us in the future.”
In fact, Cowen’s conclusion is the exact opposite of what was discovered by the actual research which documented only 73 attacks involving 83 people between 1870 and 2014. And in more than 70 percent of those attacks the people survived. There were only 20 deaths.
For comparison sake, black bears – usually and wrongly considered the least dangerous of the three species of bears in North America – killed more than three times as many people – 63 – in a 35-year shorter time span – 1900 to 2009.
“Our whole intent when we started this was to get away from the hyperbole,” Wilder said.
Researchers were hoping to end the “characterization that polar bears are the only bears that would hunt and kill people,” he said.
So much for killing that old myth.
Polar bear attacks in the Arctic, – a 7.7 million-square-mile area made up mainly of floating ice – are indeed up. Most of the attacks have come since 1960, and there have been 15 since 2010. But the study notes ‘”there was no (statistical) trend in the number of attacks by decade from 1960–2014.”
Despite that, Wilder said, it is logical to assume attacks should and will increase with disappearing Arctic ice pushing more bears ashore for longer periods of time and with the number of people living and visiting the Arctic on the increase.
Climate change fears have made the Arctic a hot topic attracting both increasing numbers of tourists, who want to be there before the big melt, and resource extraction businesses, looking for new opportunities after the expected melt.
More people plus more bears in the same habitat, no matter how or why the bears came ashore, equals more human-bear interactions with more chances for someone to get injured. But the 15 polar bear attacks between 2010 and 2015 pale compared to attacks on humans by other Alaska bears, and they are a drop in the bucket compared to what big mammals do to people in the warmer regions of the globe.
“In India alone, between 2013 – 2016, more than 1,200 people lost their lives in conflicts with elephants,” according to the World Wildlife Fund, “and more than 100 people were killed by tigers.”
The WWF is offering 60,000 Euros in rewards to those with good ideas for technological solutions to the wildlife-killing-people problem.
“There are numerous measures and tools to prevent human-wildlife conflict, from electric fences to deep trenches, chili bombs, bees, fire crackers and flashlights to education and better land use planning. But these approaches are not effective enough, or come too late to prevent interactions between humans and wildlife from escalating into full conflict,” the non-government interest group says.
“To reverse this growing threat for local people and wildlife, WWF and WILDLABS challenge engineers, designers and nature lovers to come up with new solutions or improve existing ones. There are two cases for which solutions can be designed: one for elephants in India and one for predators (polar bear and tiger). The two winners receive 30,000 Euros each to further develop and test the idea in the field.”
“If you want a model of bear management,” Wilder said, “you have to look no further than Prudhoe Bay.”
Prudhoe Bay is North America’s largest oil field. Oil companies working there set the rules to protect bears that range into the area. Food and food waste are tightly controlled and managed so bears have no opportunity to become food conditioned.
No-go zones have been established that bears are not allowed to enter. The animals are hazed away if they venture into those areas. Oil field workers are given bear training. And “bear guards” are sometimes employed to watch over workers in remote areas.
The oil companies generally have it easy because they can control the situation by controlling people.
That’s not always possible elsewhere. Arctic Alaska has the same problems as urban Alaska. Food for humans or their livestock has a bad habit of attracting bears. In Alaska’s largest city, the problems are generally garbage, bird seed, dog food and fowl. In rural Alaska, there is garbage and subsistence killed wildlife – caribou, seals, muskox and whales.
Once bears learn they can find garbage on a certain street in Anchorage or seals on a deck in Kaktovik on the Beaufort Sea, they tend to keep coming back to those places looking for more food, and that can create problems.
“It doesn’t take too many errors of slipping up before bears learn,” Wilder said. That is both a bad thing and a good thing.
In Kaktovik, wildlife-watching tourism businesses have been built around the bears. Kaktovik is a traditional Inupiat whaling village on the very north edge of Alaska near the Canadian border. As whale numbers have increased in the Arctic, Kaktovik whale harvests have gone up, and the whale carcasses have become feeding sites for polar bears.
Wilder describes Kaktovik as a “village friendly to bears.” It has embraced bear viewing, and accepted help from Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group, to install bear-proof food lockers in which to store subsistence foods.
“Keeping polar bears out of community foods is a simple step towards keeping people and polar bears safe,” says Karla Dutton, Alaska program director for Defenders. “When bears can find easy food too close to humans, it can lead to them being killed.”
The alternative to bear management designed to minimize human-bear conflicts is usually a bullet to the head of a bear.
Like most wildlife biologists studying polar bears, Wilder worries almost as much about people killing the animals as the animals killing people. In 2008, the polar bear was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
The state challenged that designation, arguing the bears didn’t meet the criteria for listing. The state lost, but it really didn’t matter much. It remains legal to shoot bears in self-defense in Alaska, and Alaska Natives are still legally allowed to hunt the animals.
Most of the residents of Alaska’s North Slope – the area of land between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean – are Alaska Natives. Wilder said North Slope residents are well aware of the dangers posed by hungry polar bears and show little tolerance for malnourished animals.
“Bears in poor condition are the most dangerous ones,” Wilder said. “The Natives didn’t need me to tell them that. They don’t fool around with those bears…Those bears get near a village. They get shot.”
The removal of the bears most likely to risk attacking people – usually a losing proposition for a bear anyway – no doubt minimizes the number of polar bear attacks in Alaska. And Wilder believes the risk is naturally fairly low.
It is clear most polar bears are risk averse, he said.
The scientist has watched polar bears feasting on a whale carcass “stampede and run for their lives” at the mere scent of a grizzly bear. When this first happened, he said, biologists couldn’t figure out what was going on.
It took them some time, he said, to realize the polar bears didn’t want to risk a fight. Even if injured, grizzlies can sometimes manage to survive on a diet of grass, plants and berries. Polar bears are pure carnivores. If they aren’t capable of hunting, they die.
“Polar bears must hunt seals to survive,” the study notes. “As a result, polar bears may be more averse to physical confrontations than grizzly bears, contrary to the common
assertion that they (polar bears) are the most aggressive of bears.”
Because of the need for meat to survive, polar bears are always on the hunt, Wilder said, and that might in large part have fueled the idea they sometimes pursue people.
A lot of near attacks, he said, “appear to have been a case of mistaken identity. ”
A polar bear stalking prey on the ice didn’t realize the prey was human until almost upon it. At which point most of the bears bolted. People who’ve been involved in encounters like this, Wilder said, describe the bears “emitting this hiss when they’re about to pounce” only to turn and run off.
Wilder thinks the hiss is sort of the bear’s way of saying “oh shit.”
People are, in general, more threat to the bears than the bears are to people. Climate change expected due to the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas – since the start of the Industrial Revolution could violently alter the bears’ habitat.
What the future holds for polar bears, no one can say. They are struggling in some areas because of diminishing polar ice (they travel on the ice to hunt seals), but doing well in other areas.
Some have been cross-breeding with grizzly bears to produce what has been called a “pizzly.” Scientists are debating whether this is a good thing – the pizzly becomes a carrier for polar bear genes – or a bad thing – some believe grizzly bear genes are dominant and polar bear genes introduced into the grizzly stock could largely disappear much as the genes of Neanderthals who mated with humans largely disappeared.
What science tell us about life on the planet is that it adapts, and it is every changing.
A warming Arctic is at the moment making life harder for polar bears, but the change is not all negative. As the sea ice has retreated, gray whales have increasingly moved into the region and so, too, some of the orcas (killer whales) that hunt the grays.
When the hunting is good, Wilder said, the orcas kill grays and eat only their tongues. The carcasses wash up on Arctic beaches where they become food for hungry polar bears forced to shore by the lack of ice.
It’s a new source of food. So, too, the walruses some of the bears seem to be learning to hunt. Polar bears can’t bite through the four-inch thick hides of adult walrus, Wilder said, but they’ve learned to stampede herds that have hauled out on shore.
Sometimes young walrus are killed in those stampedes, and the bears feast on them.
The good news for people is that among the new, alternative food sources for bears, these all top humans. Either we don’t taste that good, or bears are conditioned to understand that we’re more dangerous than we look.