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Tracking the Beaufort bears: Day 14

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WWF’s polar bear coordinator, Geoff York, keeps up his field knowledge with trips out onto the ice to check on the condition of the bears. This year, he is keeping a daily blog of his experiences over two weeks. Keep visiting this blog for regular updates and live the life of a polar bear biologist.

By Geoff York

Blue sky morning! Light winds out of the east and temperatures are still hovering around -20 C. We plan to launch at half past 9 and set about preparing food and gear for a long day. When the weather allows, we can spend nearly 11 hours out on the ice, so everyone packs a lunch, a variety of snacks, and something to drink. Working in the cold definitely increases your caloric demand!

We file a flight plan to work the northwest this morning and launch. This will be my last day out on the ice, and it is shaping up to be a good one as we encounter a lone male just 10 miles out from Barter Island. We are safely on the ground with our sedated male by 10 AM and are back out searching within an hour. He is a known bear and in good condition.

largeadultmaleAs we fly out to where we had seen the yearlings and sow yesterday, we hit on a great set of tracks- a breeding pair. We end up following these tracks for over an hour as they make a frenzied spaghetti “pattern” over a 6 km radius. A few other single bears also cross through the scene, but in the end, we cannot find the track makers. We fly out about a mile from this intensively tracked area and do a circle to see where tracks are leaving. We see nothing, so we make a few more passes, but theses bears evade detection today. Breeding pairs can be notoriously difficult as they are often not moving in a directional manner or following habitat.

We decide to abandon this area and are soon on a set of single tracks which lead to another lone male. I remark that I would be happy to work with lone males all day as we settle in and work through this capture. He is marked and again in good condition, save for a few bite marks and scratches- common during mating season. Once we are aloft, it is time to head in for more fuel.

After “feeding” the helicopter, I decide to head due north and search more to the east as this will be our second to last day in this part of Alaska. We come across an active lead system about 56 km offshore. You can see steam rising from the open water and the leads are quickly skimming over. The winds are also clearly picking up from the east and you can see some snow drifting on the surface. We head east on the lead and start noticing a couple of sets of tracks, though they appear old. After about 35 minutes of flying, we learn that the drifting snow is simply making the tracks look old as we encounter another lone male. This guy is a new bear and an older one by the looks of his worn and stained teeth. He weighs in at 480 kg and appears very stout. He also shows signs of the breeding season with a few puncture wounds and one good cut on his side. Luckily bears seem to heal quickly! We capture him in a flat pan of newer ice and it is almost entirely flat. The lack of rough ice and the winds make for a fairly bitter processing on the ground and we all have to take breaks to re-warm our numb fingers from time to time.

It is already early evening when we lift off and continue our work, so I decide to head south east. After a bit of flying without success, we come across a good set of tracks and begin to follow them. This bear is heading to Canada and the same area we had so much luck with earlier in the season. About 10 miles west of the border, we find yet another lone male. I should have been careful what I asked for earlier in the day as it is always nice to encounter a range of bear genders and groups.

The capture is routine, but it is already past 7 PM when we begin our processing on the ground. This time we are in a perfect little pan of ice about 12 m in diameter and surrounded by a tall jumble of ice. The wind protection makes the work much more comfortable and we are happy to see that this is a marked bear as processing will be fairly fast. We are a happy crew as we depart the last bear of the day and make for Kaktovik. It is a beautiful evening for a sunset flight over the sea ice and the evening light is perfect. We land at 8:40 PM and I finally get to bed around midnight.

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