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The journey north: Chukchi Sea polar bear research

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By Geoff York

Fourteen years. It’s difficult to believe that this will be my fourteenth consecutive year conducting polar bear captures in Alaska. From my first fall capture season in 1998, I always assume that each season and year will be my last such opportunity. Why? Because so few people have the opportunity to work out on the frozen seas, and fewer yet with an animal as magnificent as the polar bear. It is both an opportunity and a real honour and one I do not take for granted- every flight, every day, every year.

Thursday, March 31

Today I am flying north from Anchorage to a field camp just north of Kotzebue along the shorelines of the Chukchi Sea. I’ll be joining the US Fish and Wildlife Service Chukchi research team led by Dr Eric Regehr and Dr Karyn Rode. They have been at the field station for two weeks and have captured 29 bears – mostly family groups and young single animals, but all in good condition.

This will be their 4th year of research in the Chukchi Sea, an area where we have significant need for more information on the shared polar bear population with Russia. The data gathered through this project will shed significant light on the current status of these bears and inform future management decisions. It will also expand our understanding of how polar bears in different geographic areas are responding to rapid changes in sea ice. Additional research will be required on the Russian side in coming years to complete this story, and both WWF and the USFWS are working with partners in Russia and Chukotka to fill that knowledge and capacity gap.

The weather in Anchorage is just starting to warm, though full spring is likely a month away. As the plane touches down near the field station, it is clearly still winter. The temperature is -9 F and it was a heavy snow year in this part of north western Alaska. The truck drives through sections of narrow road with drifts as high as the cab. Looking out to the ocean, the shore fast and near shore ice still looks solid – though looks can be deceiving, especially here. The Chukchi Sea is a very dynamic and productive water body, with strong currents and prone to dramatic weather. Things can change quickly here, across all seasons.

The helicopter is still out searching for bears when I get to the field camp around 7 PM – daylight is not a limiting factor this time of year. I get my gear squared away and connect with Karyn in the office. The capture crew of Eric and a new biologist Michelle arrive shortly after with samples and gear that need cleaned, dried, and prepped for tomorrow. Time to get to work!

Friday, April 1, 2011

I wake up early and grab a hot breakfast. It’s my first time on the ice this year and it will be a busy morning, and hopefully a long day. I meet Eric, Karyn and Michelle in the gear room where we repack all the cleaned and dried gear from yesterday’s mission. Eric rotates back to Anchorage today, so Karyn and I will be in the helicopter. Michelle stays back to enter data and, with a little luck, process samples from today’s capture events.

It surprises me a bit each time, but as I buckle into the helicopter, slide my helmet on, and organise my space – I feel very much at home. In a matter of minutes we are off over the vast expanse of frozen, jumbled ice – today solid in all directions, at least near shore. The plan is to hunt southwest today towards Shishmaref (though well north). It was -25 F at base, so we see little seal activity as we start our search for polar bears.

Looking north towards Kivalina from the Chukchi Sea.Looking north towards Kivalina from the Chukchi Sea.

Despite the cold, we have great light and snow conditions for tracking and it is not long before we are hot on the trail of a family group. When we finally catch up to them, it is clear from a distance they were previously captured – each captured bear receives a large, but very temporary number to identify them from the air and ultimately reduce disturbance. It turns out this will be a theme for the day. Despite tracking our flight across virgin ice, we encounter seven bears in total – all previously captured. It seems the bears are just not moving around much this season, so we will have to redouble our efforts to get out further and cover new ground. Most of the tagged or collared bears from last season are well offshore and out of our current range.

We refuel once and after 5 flight hours and a lot of tracking and hard searching, have to call it a day. Along with the range limitations due to refuelling, we are also coming up against a mandatory maintenance interval for the aircraft. Helicopters and pilots need maintenance and rest respectively, and tonight the helicopter will go to a hangar in Kotzebue for its 100 hour, and our well deserving pilot will get a day off tomorrow.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A day for me to catch up on some work, writing, email and periodic talk of all things polar bear with Dr Karyn Rode as we sit in the field office. It’s also a good chance for me to go over field procedures and protocol for this season. Scientists are always looking to improve their methods, especially where wild animals are concerned. The FWS team has thoughtfully reworked the types of samples taken in order to both increase efficiency and reduce the amount of time needed on the ground – hopefully reducing the stress to the bears. They are also experimenting with two new satellite tracking tags – one an ear tag and the other a temporary glue-on tag. If successful, these new technologies may allow researchers to track males and sub-adult bears for the first time and may also reduce the need to collar females.

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