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Fostering understanding: US-Russian polar bear information exchange

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In early April, WWF’s Bering and Arctic Sea program officer, Elisabeth Kruger, traveled to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service field office in the Arctic to assist with interpretation for our Moscow colleague, Natalia Illarionova.

In these blog posts, Elisabeth describes her experiences on the Arctic slope and the work that the FWS does to help us understand the Chukchi Sea polar bear population.

The study is conducted over US waters, just miles from Russia.  Exchanges such as this between Russian and American biologists will help to foster a similar research program in Russia.

By Elisabeth Kruger

April 8, 2011

Photo: Natalia IllarionovaPhoto: Natalia Illarionova

Natalia Illarionova, a polar bear biologist at the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Nature Conservation and a member of the Marine Mammal Council, arrived from Moscow with the help of a WWF travel grant one week ago to learn about the US Fish and Wildlife Service polar bear research team’s mark-recapture study techniques.   I am excited to be joining her and the USFWS team near Kotzebue tomorrow to provide linguistic support.

The polar bears that live on the Chukchi Sea roam freely between Alaska and Russia, making US-Russian cooperation vital to understanding these great creatures and how they live.  Research has been conducted in Alaska since 2008, and both Russian and American scientists hope that a similar study will soon be carried out in Chukotka, on the Russian side of the International Dateline.  Already an experienced biologist in Russia, Natalia came to the US to learn about how polar bear field research is done in Alaska, and will use the techniques she learns here to develop a Russian research plan.

A looming government shutdown has threatened the polar bear research and could cancel or postpone this trip, so all of us have been on the edge of our seats, waiting to hear if funding will be cut off.

At about 9:00 PM, we hear that there was a last minute agreement, so the research can continue and I am packing my bags to fly up north!

April 9, 2011

I join about twenty others on a charter flight from the Anchorage airport, and soon we are flying over the inlet, rapidly approaching the first mountain range, which spreads, peak after peak, below and to the west.  Jagged ridges dwarf glaciers, climbing through the valleys.

After a short flight, we arrive at the airport and board a bus that will take us to the coast.  I see Tom Evans, a USFWS polar bear biologist, and am relieved to have found a familiar face.  Tom is joining the team to process the samples in their field laboratory each time a bear is captured.

WWF Canada’s Geoff York is also at the airport, preparing to board the plane on which we just arrived.  He has chronicled his work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service polar bear team here and here.

It’s still winter up north, despite the relatively warm (18 degrees Fahrenheit) temperatures.  The snow covered mountains poke out of the tundra, contrasting starkly against the bright blue sky.  As we approach the port facility, we pass a group of musk ox standing not far from the road.

After we’ve eaten and unpacked our things, Tom and I hear the helicopters coming in from a day of tracking polar bears.  We head outside in our hardhats, safety glasses, and reflective vests to help haul in the equipment.

Photo: Elizabeth KrugerPhoto: Elizabeth Kruger

Dr. Eric Regehr and Michelle St. Martin, polar bear biologists at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, have been out all day with Natalia searching for polar bears.  Later, over a well-earned hot meal, they tell us that they were able to get samples from two bears today.  This feels great after being forced to stay grounded for a few days waiting for the weather to clear.

In addition to field work with the polar bears, the team puts much effort into analyzing blood, fat, and hair samples in their field station laboratory.  After dinner, Michelle explains the lab procedures to Tom, Natalia, and me. Processing the samples takes at least an hour for each polar bear, and Natalia is very keen to get a copy of the lab procedures to study in Russia.  Back in Moscow, she spends much of her time in the lab, and is familiar with many of the processes that Michelle is explaining.  Michelle and Tom show Natalia their methods, and Natalia is more than happy to show them the Russian way of running samples.

After processing samples from one of the bears, we meet with Eric to discuss tomorrow’s plans.  The forecast is for a week of good flying, but the weather here can be very unpredictable.  If all goes well, Natalia and I will be accompanying Eric and Michelle in a second helicopter, and perhaps I will catch my first glimpse of a polar bear in the wild.

April 10, 2011

Flying weather looks good today, so after a few hours of prepping, we load into the helicopter and take off.

Natalia and I are flying west over the Chukchi Sea with Stan, our pilot.  We scan the ice and snow below us, searching for the long thin line of prints that will lead us to a polar bear.  Suddenly Natalia says “tracks!” and points to the left.  We swing back and start following the paw prints across the ice.  Soon Michelle and Eric join us in the other helicopter and after a short time have spotted the bear, which Eric carefully sedates.  We all land nearby and start working.

The scientists have put a lot of thought into their methods of taking samples and measurements to cause as little stress as possible for the bears.  Eric and Michelle start by assessing the health of the bear, taking samples and fitting the bear with ear tags, as this is the first time this bear has been captured.  They patiently explain each step in the process and answer all of Natalia’s questions.  Soon, we are taking measurements of the bear and preparing him to be weighed.  After about an hour, the process is nearly complete.  Natalia carries out the final step by painting a large number “35” on the polar bear’s back, which will help the scientists to check on the condition of this bear until it molts.

As we are starting to run short on fuel, we decide to head back to the port after leaving Bear 35.  Normally, a plane would bring additional fuel, but weather conditions in Kotzebue, where the plane is based, have prevented it from flying.

In the evening, Eric and Michelle continue to teach Natalia about the lab processes and the equipment they use.  Much of this will be custom made in Russia, so Natalia takes copious notes and photographs.

April 11, 2011

We wake up to lightly falling snow this morning, but weather forecasters are predicting that the skies will clear up in a couple hours.  As we wait for good weather, Michelle goes through the flight preparation process with Natalia, and we gather all the necessary items for the day’s work.

At around noon, the skies have cleared and we are ready to head out.  We grab a quick lunch and pack up the helicopters.  The conditions are perfect for spotting tracks today, as there’s a layer of fresh snow and good visibility.  Unfortunately, there just aren’t any tracks to be found!  The bears must be lying low today.

The ice shifts continuously in the Chukchi Sea, and we encounter many different surfaces, some of which highlight tracks better than others.

Ice from above. Photo: Elizabeth KrugerIce from above. Photo: Elizabeth Kruger Searching the ice. Photo: Elizabeth KrugerSearching the ice. Photo: Elizabeth Kruger

After a searching and searching, we finally happen upon a twin set of tracks.  Soon, Eric and Michelle have located a female and her yearling cub.

Bears spotted! Photo: Elizabeth KrugerBears spotted! Photo: Elizabeth Kruger

Once we’re on the ground and the bears are tranquilized, Natalia jumps to work and starts taking samples and measurements on one of the bears.  Eric and Michelle prepare a satellite collar for the mother, which she will wear for about a year. The USFWS team only uses satellite collars to track the movements of adult female polar bears, as younger females can outgrow their collars and male polar bears commonly have necks that are as thick as their heads, which lets the collars slip off easily.  The collars are programmed to release and drop off after twelve months of use, allowing the bear to resume living collar-free after one year.  Satellite ear tags are also used on younger females and male polar bears, but they typically only send data for about three months.  Satellite markers are important, as they provide the only yearlong tracking data for polar bears, which spend much of the winter in the dark Arctic night.

Natalia jumps to work. Photo: Elizabeth KrugerNatalia jumps to work. Photo: Elizabeth Kruger

The yearling cub is beginning to wake as we finish measuring and weighing his mother.  This is positive, as the team knows that the cub will stick by his mother’s side while her sedative also begins to wear off.

We leave this pair as they are both beginning to stir, and head back to the port.

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