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Tracking the Beaufort bears: WWF polar bear expert reports from the ice

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Geoff York, looking very frosty on the sea ice north of Alaska.Geoff York, looking very frosty on the sea ice north of 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. Come back for regular updates and photos and live the life of a polar bear biologist.

By Geoff York

For the next two weeks I will be rejoining the  United States Geological Survey (USGS) polar bear research team as they work on a variety of research and monitoring activities in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea. The study area spans the northern coast of Alaska between Point Barrow and the Canadian border. The project spends 6-8 weeks each spring conducting polar bear capture operations from three logistic bases: Barrow, Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay), and Kaktovik.

Almost everything we know about polar bears comes from research programs like the one conducted by USGS in Alaska. Similar projects are carried out in Canada and Norway and to a lesser extent in Russia and Greenland. As you might imagine, the cost for sustaining such efforts is extensive as helicopter support is required and remote operations always pose some challenges. The work is stressful and can be dangerous to both the capture crew and the bears. The Arctic is an unforgiving environment and care must always be taken for the safety of all concerned.

Capturing and handling polar bears, as with other wildlife, is critical to understanding their individual health, population health, population trends, reproduction, movements, and abundance. Without such intensive long term efforts, we would not have the data to see the current declines in polar bear populations or understand their associations with sea ice. Without such efforts worldwide, polar bears would have fewer protections, including the recent Endangered Species Act listing in the US. While it is invasive, the data from such research is invaluable for long term conservation efforts.

After 12 consecutive years of Arctic fieldwork and 10 working with polar bears, packing for the field seems routine. I sort through a pile of layers and options for head, hands and feet- it has been a cold winter in northern Alaska this year. Another routine for those who work with polar bears is leaving the warming temperatures and promising signs of spring in the areas we live to head north: Anchorage was just hitting 7 C while Barrow was still hovering around -30 C.

Flying north in the spring is almost like a time machine. Views of melting snow and brown hillsides are quickly replaced with the pure white of winter as we pass over Fairbanks and cross the Brooks Range. The North has always had a certain draw for me, larger than life landscapes stretching out to the horizon. While I am sad to leave my friends and family, I am glad to arrive back in the Arctic.

The USGS research team is operating out of the old Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, or NARL, which sits a few kilometers north of Barrow. The USGS collaborates with the North Slope Borough who manages the facilities. We arrive late in the evening and quickly heat up some dinner for the returning capture crew. The night becomes a whirlwind of activity as gear is cleaned and dried and samples are processed, stored and labeled. The evening is clear and cold.

Day 2:

I am joining the capture team mid-season this year. A group has spent the last two weeks working out of the Arctic Research Facility, or ARF, a bunkhouse and work area within the NARL. Now it is time to transition the team and gear to the Inupiat Village of Kaktovik on Barter Island, just offshore of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Over 2000 lbs of gear support a team of 4-6 people for about 6 weeks, not including food.

Despite our ambitions to spend the morning packing and the afternoon searching for polar bears, we spend the entire day packing and making the logistic arrangements to move the gear, team, and helicopter over 320 km to the east. The NARL itself is abuzz with scientific activity as scientists from across the country and around the globe are increasingly running atmospheric and sea ice projects from this perfectly situated town.

Day 3:

Moving day dawns clear and cold yet again as our weather luck continues to hold. Conditions at this time of year can frequently turn ugly with high winds, snow, and icing conditions. The team is up early to finish packing and clean the facility we have been using, all before 9 AM. We pack our equipment and supplies onto a charter flight along with our helicopter mechanic and we launch shortly thereafter headed east in the helicopter.

First on our agenda for the flight is to check on the denning site of a radio collared female to confirm the area and obtain a more accurate location. This female polar bear denned about 64 km east of Barrow in a snow drift along a lake bluff.  While we can find no sign of her den (they are quickly drifted over once vacated) we stumble upon a sow with three small cubs resting in the sun. As we have a tight schedule, they do not risk additional disturbance from us today, but it was great to see them as triplets are rare in this part of the world.

We make a stop at an abandoned cold war era radar site, appropriately named Lonely, to check on a project fuel tank then head on to Prudhoe Bay to refuel the helicopter. The industrial activity around Prudhoe is in stark contrast to the quiet and loosely populated areas on either side. Prudhoe Bay is the center of oil and gas development in Alaska.

As we continue eastward, we head out onto the sea ice to check out conditions and look for polar bear activity. The ice is much more continuous than I have seen during the past several years in the Beaufort, though it remains very thin compared to the late 90’s and early 2000. No significant leads (cracks formed in the sea ice revealing open water) can be seen, just vast expanses of rubble ice (Jumbled blocks from constant movement over the winter) and young pans (Flat expanses of ice often circular or oval in shape) of newly formed ice.  We also see little bear activity and arrive safely in Kaktovik.

Kaktovik is an Inupiat Village of approximately 250 people located on Barter Island in the eastern corner of Alaska’s North Slope. USGS bases its polar bear work out of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bunkhouse for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Picture a fairly cozy house like setting with some lab and office space and plenty of bunk beds. We spend the balance of the evening unpacking and preparing for our first day of capture from the new base. We have a great new pilot this year and an eager crew.

| Tracking the Beaufort bears: day 4 »

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