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Losing tracks

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By Geoff York

The winds have dropped a bit when I check the weather station data and we still have mostly clear skies. We coordinate with our fixed wing pilot in Kotzebue and make plans to meet up somewhere out on the ice west of Point Hope. We try to get the plane out well ahead of us as he has much more endurance than our helicopter. Ideally, the plane will find a bear or at least tracks and we can take it from there.

Such is our luck today as we hunt our way towards an area of tracks that the fixed wing picked up ahead of us. Along the way we encounter and catch one of the few single females of the season. The FWS biologists will have to try and tease out the story from the data, but it appears one or two years of low cub survival were followed by two really good years given the unusually high percentage of yearlings and low percentage of single adult females.

We eventually make it out to the tracks, and they turn out to be too much of a good thing. The combination of a large orange fishing buoy (hard to say where it may have come from) and a nearby seal kill seem to attract every bear in the area. There are easily track sets for at least four separate bears/groups!  We spend a frustratingly long time trying to tease out a good set to follow, but they invariably lead back to the kill site or the buoy time and time again.

We eventually untangle a single set that continues away from the heavily tracked area. As seems too often be the case however, we are just at the edge of being able to capture the bear and still fly to our refueling point. The tracks are also leading us out over a combination of new six inch ice (safe to work on) and some thinner grey ice that would be problematic. The tracks lead us to a single bear that appears to be a young adult male. We’ll only get one darting run as we have to spend a little time positioning him away from possible hazards (thin ice and water). The bear proves to be a bit too agile and our one shot sails over his shoulder – time to refuel.

After taking on another load from our fixed wing support, we head back to the GPS waypoint I made for the single male. It is surprisingly easy to lose both tracks and even bears out on the sea ice, and we have no luck finding our boy for a second attempt to capture. After following a few more sets back to the maze, we decide to fly several miles to the west in search of a better area.

One logistic challenge in the Chukchi, polar bears are not evenly distributed across the available landscape, nor are they necessarily near shore. This year we have basically two “hot” areas for encountering bears and both are about 100 km from our base. This means we use a fair bit of our fuel just getting to the good bear areas and getting back to camp. Today this means that our second fuel load will not buy us a great deal of additional time out on the ice.

We soon find ourselves up against our range limitation when we, of course, find a sow with cubs. To pull off a successful capture, we’d use up the fuel we need to get home and would be forced to try and refuel at the village of Point Hope. As it is the height of bowhead whaling season for the local Inuit people, we decide it is best to pass this opportunity up and start heading southeast towards home. After spending most of the day following tracks without finding the track makers, we are taunted one last time as we fly over a large single male – just not quite enough fuel, so we mark a waypoint for future reference and call it a day.

WWF International Arctic Programme polar bear specialist, Geoff York, is currently in the Chukchi Sea area with the US Fisheries and Wildlife Service, conducting research into the status of polar bear populations in the area, and is blogging for the WWF Climate blog while he is there.

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