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Alaska/Chukotka walrus and polar bear community exchanges

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In early February, WWF and the US Fish and Wildlife Service partnered to facilitate community-based meetings between village conservation leaders from Chukotka, Russia and Alaskan communities along the Chukchi Sea coast. Although the people who live across the Chukchi Sea from each other are relatively close in miles, our Chukchi partners had to travel around the world to reach the other side and meet their neighbors for the first time.

For WWF, this was also an opportunity to highlight the work of the Chukchi Umky Patrol Program we support in Russia, a grassroots effort to minimise negative polar bear human interactions. The Umky program has, in addition, cultivated efforts to eliminate poaching and manage a relatively new problem: walrus hauling out near villages in huge numbers.

The goal of our meetings was simple: to foster communication between people who live across the Arctic, sharing similar issues and concerns though sometimes novel solutions. The Alaskans we have talked to in each community are eager to meet their friends from across the sea and our Russian colleagues are very interested to see how people live in Northern Alaska and also to learn how indigenous people here work with their governments on wildlife conservation issues. In this blog entry, our species conservation coordinator, Geoff York, describes his experience of the partnership.

By Geoff York

The alarm woke me at 4 AM. It was an all-too-short night with last-minute packing and preparations for our travel this week. Our Chukotkan friends and colleagues arrived in Anchorage several days ago and had only just recovered from their already long trip. Vladilen Kavriy travelled from the village of Ryrkaipiy. He joined his Brother Sergei and fellow Umky Patrol member and the current Steward of the walrus haulout in the village of Vankarem Fedor Tymnetagin. They travelled several days by snow machine to reach the city of Anadyr, where they met up with Anatoly Kochnev, a marine mammal scientist with the Chukotkan government who has studied walrus and polar bear for many years. Together they flew to Moscow to finalise visas, then Seattle, to get to Anchorage.

The weather was clear and cold at our first destination, but the wind chill was down to -45 F. Today our group flew north, way north, to Point Hope Alaska. Point Hope is a large village of about 925 people. It is one of the longest inhabited sites in Alaska. It is very remote and maintains strong cultural traditions along with a thriving subsistence life-style. We met three more of our team in Kotzebue, Alaska: Henry Huntington, a well-respected social scientist who helped facilitate the meetings; Lori Quakenbush, a veteran marine mammal biologist with the State of Alaska; and Olga Romanenko, a biologist who acted as our official Russian translator. We would meet our 12th and final team member in Point Hope – Michael Pederson, a subsistence coordinator for the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management.

We arrived in the village around half past 10 and caught rides to the village council building to organise the details of our stay. Due to some last-minute changes in plans for our venue, we had to switch our original base of operations and lodging arrangements from City Hall. Six of us were taken in by a very generous lady from the town; several made arrangements at a new bed and breakfast (where we had also arranged for meals); and three of us, myself included, stayed at the old Whaler Hotel.

We met at the village school for lunch in the cafeteria. It was an interesting place to introduce our Chukchi friends to American chili dogs and tater tots and they politely obliged, though this was clearly not what they had back home. We spent the afternoon speaking to several science classes about polar bear behaviour. The kids had plenty of questions for the Umky Patrol guys and were amazed at their technique of using long, sturdy, poles to manage curious polar bears.

After several western-style meals over several days, our Chukotkan friends were glad to have a simple home cooked meal of meatloaf and potatoes for dinner. Our host graciously allowed our large group free run of the B&B while we worked on last-minute changes to presentations and chat about the day. Most of us continued discussions on walrus and polar bear long into the night before finally getting some much-needed sleep.

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