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Hoping for a chance encounter

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

By Geoff York

Weather often dictates fieldwork in Alaska, especially when you have to be in the air or on the water. This morning it is foggy with periodic snow. As conditions can change quickly up here, we always assume things will improve and plan accordingly.

The daily morning routine: wake up between 6-7 AM, check the weather, grab coffee and a quick breakfast, check the weather, grab the clean field laundry, repack all of the clean and dried capture gear, check the weather, review the equipment list and make sure we have everything we might need, check the weather, grab a cup of coffee and briefly check email (yes – even up here, I cannot escape technology), check the weather, meet with the pilot and check the weather in Kotzebue to set a tentative launch time, pack food and water for the day, check the weather, wait.

Polar bears are not found evenly across the sea ice landscape – this likely reflects patchiness of prey and preferred habitats. Puzzlingly, there are often areas of ice with abundant seals and no sign of polar bears – one more question that new tracking and remote-sensing technologies may help to answer. In this part of the Chukchi Sea, the Fish and Wildlife Service has identified two hotspots for bear activity, both about 112 kilometres (70 miles) from our location. The weather today is not good enough to travel that far from base, so we decide to look around the near shore and hope for a chance encounter.

The light is flat as we head out on the ice, not ideal for seeing tracks or bears, but worth a look. About 32 kilometres (20 miles) from base, we encounter a set of tracks near a lead. After following them for 8 minutes, they disappear onto hard packed snow and ice. We have a bit of wind today as well, so it’s hard to tell how old the tracks may be as they drift in fairly quickly.

We reach our halfway mark for fuel and start heading back. On the way in I spy a seal kill on the ice, though we cannot see any bear tracks. We decide to land and check it out. Eric is taking muscle and fat samples from any prey they discover during the field season. Analysis of the prey will help scientists learn more about what polar bears in this area are eating.

As we come in to land, our pilot Howard spots an arctic fox running away from the seal. Eric and I hop out to investigate and sample. It’s a small ringed seal pup that had been dug out from its lair under the snow. We look around for the polar bear tracks to determine the direction we should hunt and are surprised to find none. We examine the lair and find a hole only large enough for a fox. In all my years of working on the ice, it’s the first time I’ve seen a fox successfully breaking into a seal lair. A sad day for the seal, but a tremendous success for the fox, and out here, nature does not take sides.

The weather has not improved, so we head back to camp having found no bears today. Our typical evening routine will be a bit shorter tonight, but usually consists of: unload the helicopter, hand off all the biological samples for initial processing and curation, completely unpack the tagging kit and the tagging bag, remove the tripod and net for drying, gather all of the field laundry (gloves and towels), clean and dry all of the tagging equipment, sterilize anything that comes into direct contact with the bears, make new darts, make additional drug, clean and unload firearms and dart gun, download GPS position data, enter field notes and capture data, eat, sleep, repeat.

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, and is blogging for the WWF Climate blog while he is there.

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