A rare polar attack that left a 24-year-old woman and her year-old son dead in Wales, Alaska, in January appears now to fit a pattern first noticed more than three decades ago of old, under-nourished bears turning to humans as prey.
Canadian biologist Stephen Herrero, who has investigated more North American bear attacks than anyone, and colleague Susan Fleck in 1989 reported finding six people killed by polar bears between 1965 and 1985 with two-thirds of the deaths apparently linked to hungry, older bears.
“Four of the predacious males were described as ‘thin’ or ‘skinny,’ suggesting that food stress may be a contributing variable in such incidents,” they told the Eighth International Conference on Bear Research and Management meeting in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, that year.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials have yet to determine exactly how old the bear that killed Summer Myomick and son Clyde Ongtowasruk in the tiny community near the tip of the Seward Peninsula jutting 200 miles into the northernmost reaches of the Pacific Ocean to form the eastern edge of the Bering Strait, but Alaska wildlife biologist Ryan Scott described its teeth as “extremely worn.”
They get that way with age. Biologists studying grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park say that once past the age of 15, bears display excessively worn and discolored front teeth, some of which may be broken, with incisors worn straight across at the gum line. But the teeth of omnivorous grizzlies – which feed as much on roots, tubers and other vegetation than what other animals they can kill – take a lot more abuse than those of carnivorous polar bears – which feeds on seals, walruses, the occasional beluga whale and carrion.
“The (Wales) bear is described as extremely emaciated,” Scott added. “No body or organ fat observed.”
Some body fat is normal in even the leanest of mammals. Autopsies of humans have revealed that even those near death from starvation have at least a small amount of body fat.
The Wales bear, if not on the verge of death from starvation, certainly had to be very hungry when it encountered Myomick and her son outside the Wales school. Such a hungry, predacious bear is every Alaskan’s worst nightmare, be the bear polar, brown/grizzly or even a smaller black bear.
What happened in Wales can only be described as a tragedy. Sometimes life is unfair, random and cruel, and sometimes it is even more so in the wild places than in the cities of the world.
Some agenda-oriented mainstream media are suggesting the attack was linked to bears starving due to global warming.
“No individual attack can be attributed to climate change, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it is still investigating the circumstances of the Alaska attack,” according to the Washington Post. “But rising temperatures are melting the sea ice that polar bears navigate to find mates, raise cubs and hunt seals to sustain their high-fat diet. The shrinking ice has put the population of polar bears at risk of decline.
“Scientists say climate change is forcing the Arctic carnivore to spend more time inland than in the past – raising the possibility of run-ins that could be dangerous both for humans and bears.”
But the Wales bear was not “inland;” it was on the coast. And the number of deadly polar bear attacks around the Arctic doesn’t appear to have risen significantly in the 34 years since Herrero and Fleek completed their report covering the 20 years from 1965 to 1985, although there are so few deadly polar bear attacks that no truly reliable global numbers are kept as they are with brown/grizzly bears.
The last deadly polar bear attack appears to have taken place on Norway’s Spistbergen Island in 2020. Two years before that, a 31-year-old Canadian man was killed while trying to protect his children from a polar bear on Sentry Island in Hudson Bay; the children escaped and another individual shot and killed the bear.
The death followed the 2011 death of a 17-year-old tourist from the United Kingdom near the Norwegian community of Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost settlement with a population greater than 1,000.
And there were two polar bear fatalities reported in the 1990s, one of which involved a 64-year-old woman trying to protect fellow campers near Corbett Inlet on Hudson Bay, and the other the last Alaska polar bear fatality, Carl Stalker. Stalker was walking through the village of Point Lay, north of Wales, with his girlfriend when they were chased by the bear, which chased them down and killed him.
Though that bear weighed almost 600 pounds, authorities at the time told United Press International that the animal was “starving,” and noted the attack was “the first polar bear killing of a human in memory in Alaska.”
Around the Arctic over the course of the past 30-plus years, there have, however, been many non-fatal polar attacks; so many so that in the wake of yet another attack in the Svalbard region of Norway last year, Washington, D.C.-based travel writer Tim Ward wrote a story for Medium titled “The polar bear always loses.” cataloging previous polar bear attacks in the Norwegian Arctic area now popular with ecotourists.
“There’s valid concern that as ecotourism expands on the island, there will be more encounters, attacks and shootings,” he added. “Government grants are supporting the tourism industry’s ‘Destination Svalbard 2025″ masterplan to double the number of full-time tourism jobs in Longyearbyen by 2025” while “seven of the nine polar bear shootings since 2011 were the result of tourist activities.”
It is a double-edged sword. The tourists invariably become advocates for protecting the bears, but also increase the risk of a dangerous encounter that could get a bear killed.
The dangerous species
Still, the conflicts between carnivorous polar bears and people pale when compared to the problems between people and omnivorous grizzly bears, who are not – at least not yet – threatened by global warming. And there, too, hungry, old bears have proven themselves a problem.
The most famous grizzly bear fatalities in Alaska – the deaths of supposed “bear whisperer” Timothy Treadwell” and friend Amie Huguenard – involved one such bear living in a food-rich habitat along the Alaska Peninsula, where bears grow famously fat on a diet heavy in salmon.
Some now attribute the two deaths to a hyperphagic bear, hyperphagia being “a period of excessive eating and drinking to fatten for hibernation.” Treadwell’s diaries would indicate he knew he was playing with fire when he headed back to Katmai in the fall of 2003 after the end of the salmon runs.
“It’s September,” he wrote, “and I’m into the historically toughest and most exciting month. Tremendous storms, and huge gatherings of extremely hungry bears, more and more darkness–intense isolation. I’m going to make it, unless one of the killer bears gets me.”
The 28-year-old bear that killed and ate him was not suffering because of climate change. But it had apparently shifted its attention to what little easy prey was available – a pair of humans – as some old bears do. Bear attack data indicates that the behavior of bears can change depending on food availability and age. Well-fed bears are, in general, a lot more docile than hungry bears.
In 1981, a hungry, possibly ill brown bear for three days held hostage four deer hunters who had rented a U.S. Forest Service cabin on Admiralty Island in the state’s Panhandle. It stayed generally out of sight during the day, but would return each night to haunt them.
“When one of his went to the bathroom, three of us stood guard,” one of the men would later say. They finally were forced to shoot and kill the bear when it charged one of the men just outside the cabin in daylight. Wildlife officials who examined the animal found it had few teeth left in its mouth and a tongue nearly severed from lacerations caused by old cans it had devoured near the cabin in a desperate attempt to find food before pursuing the hunters.
Its behavior was starkly different from that of well-fed bears.
There has never been a violent encounter between a human and a bear at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula where upwards of 50 brown/grizzly bears gather to feast on chum salmon every summer and dozens of people gather to watch, and there has never been serious attack by a bear on a human at the Brooks River in Katmai Park where even greater numbers of people gather to observe dozen of brown/grizzly bears feasting on sockeye salmon.
Well-fed polar bears feeding on the carcasses of whales killed by Alaska Native hunters on the state’s North Slope have in recent years made the village of Kaktovik a bear-viewing hotspot without any deadly conflicts. The Sierra Club has cited what has happened there as a “successful experiment in peaceful coexistence,” citing Inupiat (Eskimo) whaling kills as providing sustenance for bears “increasingly beleaguered by a decline in the sea ice on which they depend” for access to the seals they usually hunt.
But the relationship between the all-white bears and the people of the Arctic is not always friendly. Because of the inherent dangers the animals can pose to humans, some communities along Alaska’s northern Arctic coast operate bear patrols funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to the Nome-based Alaska Nannut Co-Management Council.
“The community of Wales, in fact, developed the “Kingikmiut Nanuuq Patrol” program in 2014 in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund to do just that, according to Nannut, but the funding for the program eventually ran out. The community was said to have been “seeking sustainable funding solutions to maintain operations” prior to the deadly January attack.
Local leader Clyde Oxereok, one of the main players in the program, died last year. Prior to that, he and the Nanuuq patrol – Nanuuq being the Inupiat word for polar bear – were featured in Hakai Magazine in 2018.
“The two-year-old Kingikmiut Nanuuq Patrol – or the Wales polar bear patrol – resulted from an innovative partnership between the tribal council in Wales, US government wildlife officials, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF),” Eva Holland wrote then. The patrollers are trained to haze visiting polar bears out of town using an escalating range of non-lethal deterrents, from flashlights and air horns, to a shotgun loaded with beanbag rounds or rubber bullets. They carry a second shotgun loaded with live ammunition as a weapon of last resort, but ideally the operation delivers a warning for the bears, not a death warrant. The goals are simple: to keep people safe from bears, while also keeping bears safe from people.”
The WWF and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service got involved in such programs to try to help save the bears, an endangered species once indiscriminately shot in Arctic coastal villages both for safety and for their hides. Elisabeth Kruger, the WWF’s Alaska director, helped convince villagers that those old attitudes needed to change.
“A few years back, two of the community’s teachers had a close encounter on their way to work in the winter darkness, and for the Kingikmiut, the ultimate nightmare scenario is a confrontation between a polar bear and their children,” Holland wrote. “At the same time, the traditional solution to bears in the village – shooting them – no longer seems ideal.”
Kruger “and the Kingikmiut,” she added, “wanted to be more proactive for the sake of the bears and the community.” Oxereok told her that “I want my grandchildren to see a polar bear. Just to see a bear in its natural habitat, I think everyone should see that.”
But humans living with bears is not always easy or safe, and the problems are only increasing as the globe’s human population continues to swell.
“The increasing trend of large carnivore attacks on humans not only raises human safety concerns but may also undermine large carnivore conservation efforts,” scientists who published in Nature in 2019 warned. “Although rare, attacks by brown bears (Ursus arctos) are also on the rise and, although several studies have addressed this issue at local scales, information is lacking on a worldwide scale. Here, we investigated (664) brown bear attacks on humans between 2000 and 2015 across most of the range inhabited by the species: North America, 183; Europe, 291; and East, 190.”
Those attacks resulted in 95 deaths or slightly over six per year – a very, very small number compared to other risks humans daily face.
“Every day, almost 3,700 people are killed globally in crashes involving cars, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, trucks, or pedestrians,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). “More than half of those killed are pedestrians, motorcyclists, or cyclists.”
That amounts to about 1.35 million deaths per year, a number so large it isn’t even comparable to bear deaths. But humans are now so conditioned to motor-vehicle-related fatalities that they barely notice them unless they are friends or family of the dead.
Animal attacks are a wholly different matter. They scare the hell out of the human species as much now as they must have when humans lived in caves with only primitive weapons for protection, and the number of deaths has been inching upward though still extremely small.
Price of success
Once an endangered species everywhere in the U.S. outside of Alaska, and in much of Europe, brown bear numbers, in particular, have been increasing in both areas thanks to efforts to save species once hunted to near extinction out of fear.
In parts of the Western U.S., bear numbers have boomed since the animals were provided the protection of the Endangered Species Act. With the populations now considered large and healthy in the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems, the Fish and Wildlife Service believes the bear populations are near natural levels in those two areas and is considering removing them from the endangered species list, making it easier for Western states to manage them as they spread out from their park-centered refugia into surrounding areas.
Given a large population and a significant number of bears dispersing from those zones in search of new habitats to colonize, bear-human conflicts, bear attacks and the deaths of both bears and humans have been on the upswing in the Mountain West for years. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department now runs a significant bear-killing program.
“Grizzly bears are removed from the population due to a history of previous conflicts, a known history of close association with humans, or if they are deemed unsuitable for release into the wild (e.g. orphaned cubs, poor physical condition, or human safety concern),” the agency’s latest report on Grizzly Bear Management Captures, Relocations and Removals (ie. kills) in Northwest Wyoming says. “Of the 45 grizzly bears captured, 30 bears were removed from the population.”
The philosophy among state wildlife managers in Wyoming, as among those in Alaska, is that sometimes you have to kill a few bears to save the bears. The brown/grizzly species was once almost eliminated from the North American continent because of fears of the animals killing people. Government efforts to remove “problem” bears help tamp down such fears.
At the height of the old hysteria in Alaska in the late 1920s, the Daily Alaska Empire ran an editorial headlined “Exterminate Brown Bears” in the wake of the death of Jack Thayer, a young timber cruiser for the U.S. Forest Service.
“Brown bears serve no good purpose,” the editorial below proclaimed “They are essentially killers – the bear ought to be exterminated – and the extermination ought to begin at once.”
Today the Admiralty brown-grizzly bears – like the brown/grizzly bears in many other places in Alaska and the polar bears of Katvoik, Norway and Canada’s Hudson Bay – are a tourist attraction. But living with the bears presents problems, and those have only grown as bear numbers have increased and politics have come into play.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which like the state of Wyoming, have been killing bears to protect people are now being sued by environmental groups that think such control efforts harm bears. The USDA, which manages Montana national forests, has a permit to kill bears that are a “demonstrable but nonimmediate threat to human safety” or that are engaged in “significant depredations” of livestock, crops or beehives.”
According to the Jurist, a publication of the legal trade, WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project and Trap Free believe the permit is being used too liberally and went to court in Montana in January to try to get a federal judge to halt the program and overturn a Fish and Wildlife Service ruling that the removals are not a threat to the existence of Montana’s brown/grizzly bears.
Montana politicians seem largely of the opposite view. Where the ideal balance between protecting people and saving bears is an always shifting target, not only in the U.S. but globally.
“A spate of deadly bear attacks in Romania has raised fears that the population of Europe’s largest protected carnivore is increasing beyond control,” the BBC reported in 2019. “Three men have been killed in little over a month in this East European country that hosts the Continent’s biggest number of brown bears.”
The European brown bear is considered a more docile creature than its American cousin, the brown/grizzly, but the bears sometimes still prove deadly. The last wild one in Switzerland was shot and killed in 2013 because it was judged a threat to people. The bears are, however, doing much better in Scandinavia where their populations have grown, and where they try to avoid people.
Sweden, where the bears are still killed in carefully monitored hunts, is now home to an estimated 2,800 to 3,000 of the animals that were on the verge of extinction in the 1930s. The bears that survive there now are described as ” shy, peaceful and very difficult to see in the wild.” They are known to have caused only two deaths in the country in the entire 20th Century.