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
I awaken to a grey morning. The visibility is still good, but there is high overcast and the light is flat. Not the best conditions for searching, but still worth heading out on the ice. We plan to hunt to the northwest today after checking on the den we found to see if the family has departed.
On our way out to the den site, we bump into a second likely maternal den about 10 miles west of the other location. Tracks are present and there is some recent scat, or feces, in the area, but there are no obvious tracks leading to the ice. We take a good waypoint on the GPS and will keep a close eye on this one as well. As we approached the second den, no one was outside and there were also no tracks leading away, so we departed to continue our search back to the west.
After about an hour of searching in flat light conditions, we happen on a single bear we believe is a recently weaned two year old or small sub adult. Regardless, it looks thin from the air as we set up for a capture. Once on the ground, we are surprised to see a very thin yearling. In this part of the Arctic, a yearling should still be with its mother. Unfortunately, there is little information as to what happened, but plenty of questions.
A yearling alone, and in such poor condition is truly a ghost bear. Its chances of surviving are very slim. Once again reminding me of how difficult life can be for these seemingly invincible animals and something I had not seen in a decade of capture work.
We return to Kaktovik for refueling then resume our search efforts further to the northwest. After several hours of searching without much sign, we stumble across a small pan of multi-year ice with a hill near the center. While there are no clear tracks coming or going, the area on the pan is covered with the old tracks of a family group. The striking feature is clear slide marks were small polar bears had repeatedly climbed the hill and slid down. It looks similar to a river otter playground. Bears had spent some time here, and they apparently enjoyed themselves.
A bit further along we encounter a red spot in the snow and land to check it out. We assume it is our first kill site and George is hoping to start sampling prey remains as a routine part of his work. After a quick look around, it is clearly not a kill site, just a blood trail. We pick back up again to investigate from the air. We backtrack about 100 meters to where the trail begins. George and I both go outside to investigate while the helicopter stays running. It is clear there was an altercation between two animals and we assume it must have been two bears, however there are only two sets of track in the area: polar bear, and wolverine. Once more, we have more questions than we can find clues to answer and we have to move on.
We are beginning to wonder about this day when we finally discover another breeding pair. They look healthy and this time there are no surprises. The male turns out to be our oldest catch of the season at 25. This is very encouraging as I am beginning to have some concern about the potential population age structure from the animals we are encountering. Most of the bears we had captured to date were younger than 12, and I recall a similar concern last season. As a population is stressed, you would expect the impacts to be seen first among the most vulnerable segments of the population; young bears and old bears. The female is much younger but has had cubs before. She is half his size, but both appear to be doing well. It was a good way to end our day on the ice.
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, photos, and maybe some video too, and live the life of a polar bear biologist.