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. This is the first of several blogs from him during his time there.
By Geoff York
Monday, April 19, 2010, 4.00am, Alaska
When you travel within or outside of this huge state, you get used to very early or very late flight arrangements. This morning I’m catching the first flight to Kotzebue, a moderate-sized town just north of the Bering Strait and a regional transportation hub. The sun is already rising as we cross the Alaska Range just south of Denali- even after 20 years of living up here, this is an impressive view. I’ll have about 4 hours of airport appreciation time in Kotz before jumping on a small plane to the closest airstrip near the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) field camp for Chukchi Sea polar bear research. Once on the ground I’ll have an 80 kilometre (50 mile) road trip by truck to finally reach the team and helicopter. This marks my twelfth consecutive capture season in Alaska. The FWS team began this season on March 13 and has already captured 47 bears to date.
The Chukchi Sea covers approximately 518,000 square kilometres between Russia and Alaska. Both its sheer size and remoteness make the Chukchi a huge question mark for a lot of biological questions, including information on the status of polar bears. We currently have very little data with which to estimate the population size, health, or even trends, but that is exactly why FWS is now working here, and they are starting to fill the information gaps.
The Chukchi Sea experienced some of the most dramatic sea ice changes recorded anywhere in the Arctic, both in terms of sea ice extent and total ice volume lost due to climate warming. The late 1990s also saw dramatic socio-economic change for the people of Chukotka, subsequent to the fall of the Soviet Union. People found themselves without the government support they had grown accustomed to, and had to turn to what resources they had at hand. Despite polar bear hunting being banned in Russia since 1956, illegal harvest is reported to have skyrocketed between 1996 and 2002 as local people scrambled to survive and poaching by outsiders increased. The Russian harvest is thought to have subsided to much lower levels in recent years, though poaching remains a concern.
These thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of my eight-seat plane to take me to the airstrip south of Kivalina. Spring is clearly breaking across the tundra and low hills as we fly north – snow gives way grudgingly to vegetation. A small herd of caribou greets us at the runway, though they barely seem to take note of the plane or the people. Jessica Carie, an intern with WWF who is supporting the FWS polar bear research team, is there to take me down to the coast. Jessica runs the sample processing and field lab this season and has also been a huge help with logistics – never easy with this sort of work.
The drive is all downhill as we follow a gently sloping valley to the sea. We see several more groups of caribou grazing and quite a few willow ptarmigan – the males already in their breeding plumage and beginning to stake out territory. It has been a light snow year and the results are clearly seen in the abundance of ptarmigan, snowshoe hare, and even lynx (I missed seeing a group of four by a couple of weeks).
The mostly frozen Chukchi Sea spreads out before us as we reach the field camp. The capture crew is still out, so I take the time to get settled in and oriented to the routine. The helicopter lands a little after 9 PM with Eric Regehr of FWS and Mike Lockhart, a biologist with Polar Bears International, onboard along with our excellent capture pilot, Howard Reed of Maritime Helicopters. Mike and I have worked together for about seven years in the Southern Beaufort Sea and it is a great chance to catch up with a good friend. With my arrival, Mike will head north to join the USGS polar bear research team for the last two weeks of their season.
Monday April 19, 2010
A foggy morning greets my first day of fieldwork. We will not be going anywhere soon, but that’s okay as the team was up until midnight sorting samples, cleaning the field gear, and entering data. It also gives me time to meet with Eric to review this year’s sampling and safety protocols. I also have time to get my flight and cold weather gear together. Even though the temperatures will be around or above freezing from here on out, we are still working on sea ice and around very cold water!
I also have the chance to meet a very interesting visitor to the operation – Greg Marshal of National Geographic (inventor of the famous “Critter Cameras”) is finishing up a new film on polar bear research and climate change. Greg will be following us all week to capture footage of the research in action both for his project but also in partnership with FWS for their use in outreach and education – an excellent public/private collaboration.
We gear up and launch by midday and it feels like coming home to me. As we fly out over the ice and begin our search I think “Man, I really miss this!” There is just something about the Arctic and even more so something about working on and over the frozen seas. This is truly big sky country with horizons extending out to infinity (and seemingly beyond some days).
The fog gave way to blue skies and sunshine and the ice is a beautiful mosaic of large pans, small pressure ridges, and leads (cracks with open water that can vary from a few metres to several kilometres wide). Unlike the Southern Beaufort Sea where I have spent most of my time, the Chukchi is very productive and seals – predominantly bearded seals today – are abundant and enjoying the weather. It’s pupping season and we see several young animals out on the ice with their mothers close at hand.
Finding polar bears though is not quite as easy! We spend the day searching what looks like good habitat and trying to follow several sets of tracks – all ending when the track makers veer onto hard pack snow and the trail disappears. We reach our halfway point for fuel and start heading back towards camp. As it seems is often the case, we come across an unmarked (not captured this season) bear around 9 PM. It’s a young adult male and we are just able to pull off a capture. The darting run is textbook and the bear is safely down in less than 5 minutes.
Daylight is not a limiting factor this far north in the late spring and we are back to camp around 10:30 PM. It will be another late night, but a great way to ease back into fieldwork!