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In search of the extraordinary: Chukchi Sea polar bear research

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Geoff York, the WWF Global Arctic Programme’s resident polar bear expert, is in the field in the Chukchi Sea, Alaska, working with bears for the 14th year in a row. Read his previous posts here and here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Finally – a banner morning: clear, nearly calm, and should reach +5F by this afternoon. The team was joined by a second small helicopter late last night that will act as a spotter and may also haul extra fuel later in the season when the sea ice become too broken for the fixed wing to land. We meet at 8 AM for our briefing and plan to launch around half past ten. We will also have our fixed wing spotter/fuel plane today, so pilot coordination will be important.

Following the high winds this week, we are expecting that any old tracks will be well drifted, which should help us. However, snow scour (loss of snow) and hard pack will make new tracks harder to find. Good thing we will have a few more eyes on the ice today.

Polar bear tracks on hard-packed snow are difficult to see from the air and even more difficult to follow any distance.Polar bear tracks on hard-packed snow are difficult to see from the air and even more difficult to follow any distance.

We plan to hunt northwest, but a large lead system diverts us to the west-southwest. It takes a good hour before we find a nice looking set of tracks, and it appears to be a family group. The second helicopter is a good 40 minutes behind us as it was delayed leaving camp and we radio our fixed wing to start looking for a place to land near our coordinates as we will need fuel in the next hour. Following a good 30 minutes of tracking, we find a ringed seal kill and land to grab a muscle and fat sample. To better equilibrate feeding ecology studies (learning what polar bears eat) we need to also sample the potential prey as well and this is a natural opportunity. Between the three bears and one happy arctic fox, there is very little left. In this environment, little goes to waste.

We continue on with the tracking and in short order find the healthy looking sow and her two, two year old cubs, nearly as tall as their mother. It looks like we’ll have enough fuel to capture them, so I load 3 darts and prepare for the darting run. Meanwhile Craig and our pilot assess the area for any hazards, water being the primary concern, and start to move the bears towards a good capture location.

When the pilot gives the go ahead, I lower the shooting window and hang outside with the loaded dart rifle. We’ll come in within 10-15 feet from the bears, flying low and relatively slow. The best bet is to dart straight down and aim towards a large mass like the neck, shoulders or rump. We soon have all three bears safely sedated and it’s time for us to really get to work.

Capture is stressful to wildlife, pilots, and biologists alike – so we take precautions to minimise the time on the ground. Each bear is carefully hooded to both protect the eyes from direct sunlight and also to help keep them calm. We then set about checking for existing marks, applying new marks (tattoos and ear tags), and taking a small suite of measures and samples to assess body condition, feeding ecology, genetics, and potentially disease. Each bear is also weighed with a digital scale and tripod. This mom weighs in at 560 pounds – very stout for this time of year and with two young still in tow. All three bears are in very good condition.

Craig and Mikhail ready one cub for weighing while Geoff applies the final tattoo to the second cub. Mom is in the foreground.Craig and Mikhail ready one cub for weighing while Geoff applies the final tattoo to the second cub. Mom is in the foreground. WWF biologist Geoff York happily out on the ice and preparing to apply a tattoo. (Happy because it’s +5 F, sunny, and calm!)WWF biologist Geoff York happily out on the ice and preparing to apply a tattoo. (Happy because it’s +5 F, sunny, and calm!)

With three bears, we are down on the ice for a little over two hours. The last thing we do is fit a radio collar for the adult female, the only bears we can easily and safely collar. The USFWS will be able to track her movements over the next year if she tolerates the new accessory. Some bears simply take it off when they wake up, but most seem to adjust quickly and go about their lives seemingly unaware or unconcerned. Movement data is very valuable when trying to delineate a population, look at habitat use, and assess changes over time. Tracking females is also one of the best ways to delineate key denning areas – something that will be increasingly important for successful conservation.

The fixed wing plane comes in for a landing to refuel the capture helicopter - a great chance to stretch our legs and grab a bite to eat.The fixed wing plane comes in for a landing to refuel the capture helicopter - a great chance to stretch our legs and grab a bite to eat.

After the collar is fitted, we check the data sheets and load up the gear. As we lift off, we carefully hunt a circle around the family to make certain no other bears have wandered nearby. Seeing no activity, we rendezvous with the fixed wing for refuelling.

In the back of our collective mind s- we’ve all been watching a very strong low pressure system slowly moving our direction. As of this morning, the weather service was calling for a severe winter storm warning from the Aleutian Islands all the way to Point Hope. The forecast includes storm force winds from 30 to 60 knots and up to 5 inches of new snow. While we were enjoying the nicest day of the week, conditions were expected to change rapidly by this evening. We worked one last set of very fresh looking tracks for another hour or so, finally losing the track maker in a path of rubble ice that has either hard packed, or no snow at all. Despite having two aircraft searching, we simply could track it no further. Chances were fairly good that the bear was close enough to be watching the watchers. With fuel running low again, we have no choice but to head back and with the forecast as it was, we call it a night.

The helicopter checks the weather on our way in and decides to press on to Kotzebue after dropping us off and refuelling. It is highly unlikely we will fly tomorrow and at least down there he can protect the helicopter from the potential winds by getting inside a hangar. By the time it is getting dark, the edge of the front is clearly visible from camp.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The storm hits sometime in the early morning. Reports of hurricane-force winds ripping roofs off of buildings come in from the Alaskan peninsula and even Anchorage and surrounds is under a high wind warning. We are somewhat more fortunate, though winds are steady at 25 knots and gusting into the 30s with snow and blowing snow. It’s a proper ground blizzard all day – which I personally like. The worst days are the ones where the weather is not quite certain, not quite bad enough – making you guess or wonder about flying. Days like today are absolutely clear in that regard – no need to wonder or worry about lost capture time as we are not going anywhere anytime soon.

The storm, while frustrating in some regards, is also fortuitously timed. This season WWF worked with the USFWS to support a scientific exchange and training opportunity between the US and Russia. Last night, we were joined by our Russian colleague Natalia, a biologist with the federal government. She is visiting this project to learn how we go about capturing polar bears, the measures and samples we collect, and how we process samples in the field. The plan is to build a professional network between US and Russian polar bear researchers and to also build the necessary capacity to begin similar research in Chukotka and elsewhere in Russia. Next steps will also include sending US biologists to Chukotka and we are simultaneously supporting exchanges between indigenous peoples on both sides of this shared Sea.

The down time allows Michelle and I the time to go through our procedures and show Natalia the equipment in each of the field kits from darting to measuring and marking to sampling. It also gives us time to repair a few items that were in need and to do a thorough cleaning and restocking of all the field essentials. There is almost always work to be done around camp!

Friday, April 8, 2011

The winds have rotated 180 degrees and are now out of the east, but much lighter. The visibility however is not much improved as snow and low clouds make for a very white morning. Visibility starts improving around midday, but we face another issue: our helicopter is stuck in Kotzebue. They attempted to fly up the coast mid morning, but ran into heavy fog and had to turn back. We watch helplessly in the afternoon as conditions steadily improve around us, but remain poor to the south. At least the helicopter rode out the storm indoors and the pilot will be well rested for tomorrow!

To protect the small helicopter, the Port crew surrounds it with large steel sea cans making a perfect wind and snow break.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Today will be a perfect day to hand the capture work back to Eric and Michelle – sun, fresh snow, and light winds. It will also be a great first day for our Russian partner Natalia to make her first flight over the mostly frozen Chukchi, and, with a little luck and good fortune, place her hands on a polar bear in the wild. Tremendous hope rests on her shoulders, and that of several of her mentors and peers back home. The Russian Arctic remains a vast question mark regarding polar bear numbers, distribution, and current status. Significant investment of human and financial resources will be needed to fill these gaps over the next 5-10 years. This will clearly not be easy or fast, but I have renewed hope that it will indeed happen, and see that WWF has a significant role yet to play. With the collaboration of key partners like the USFWS to the east and the Norwegian Polar Institute to the west – we will yet establish sound data where we currently have only question marks, anecdotal, or dated information.

Eric and the helicopter return in the morning. We quickly unload their personal gear and reload the capture equipment while the mechanic refuels the ship. Eric and I discuss the past week and he then pulls the current team together for the daily briefing. I meanwhile pack up the last of my stuff and make ready for the flight back to Anchorage this afternoon. The ten days have gone by all too quickly and I find myself wishing I could stay, but I have been away from other responsibilities (both at home and the office) for long enough.

I walk the team out to their helicopters, help load Natalia, and say my farewells. In minutes they are off again, flying out far over the seasonal ice in search of the extraordinary polar bear who roams this dynamic and rapidly changing environment. It is only through such efforts, in combination with insights from people who live with the bears, that we will successfully conserve this unique species and its arctic home.

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