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Tracking the Beaufort bears: Day 13

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Investigating our first successful polar bear seal kill site in the eastern Southern Beaufort Sea, Alaska.Investigating our first successful polar bear seal kill site in the eastern Southern Beaufort Sea, Alaska.

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

A heavy blanket of fog greats the morning light again- continued indication of open water and active ice offshore. The layer is relatively thin and should burn off by mid-day. We continue our operational plan of remaining rigidly flexible and slowly prepare for a late launch. By mid morning, visibility appears to be improving, so we load up and head down to the helicopter. In the short time it takes us to mobilize, the fog is right back down again. We load the helicopter with our gear that is not cold sensitive and head back to the bunkhouse.

An hour later we are back in the helicopter and heading to the northwest. We know of a collared female with a single cub heading our way, so decide to hunt in her general direction. The fog continues to give us a matrix of patches out on the ice and sends us more west than north.

As luck would have it, we encounter tracks that lead to our first seal kill site near a recently refrozen lead. An Arctic Fox skitters away from the carcass as we approach and it looks like a smaller bear also found these remains. Nothing is wasted out here, especially this time of year when everyone is coming off a long cold winter.

We continue on and locate the successful hunter not too far away- a lone male. He is in great condition and the capture and processing run smoothly. We are all glad to see that conditions appear to be improving for hunting.

Shortly after departing our male, we see our first family group with two yearlings! This is only the second encounter of the season, but at least we found some out here. As we circle around to assess their condition and safely position them on the ice, our friend the fog rolls in as if by design and we are forced to break off our pursuit. We will look for them again tomorrow, weather permitting.

Somewhat dejectedly, we start searching our way back towards home. Within 20 minutes, we find a mother bear with a new cub, and she is wearing a collar. Her behavior is clearly that of a bear that has been captured before. She is a good mom and stays with her cub, but she also coils and turns to face the helicopter- a good indication she is ready to jump. This bear decides against that tactic and we quickly have her sedated. This is an older female to be reproductively active and the oldest female captured so far this season at 24. She was first captured in 1992 and we have handled her several times over the ensuing years. She is an experienced mother and her cub is in good shape. We fit her with a new collar and head back to Kaktovik. It’s 8 PM when we land and this will be another late night. Our lab technician finally calls it a “night” at 1:30 AM.

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