Beaufort Sea polar bears find themselves in the crosshairs of global warming, forced to adapt to less and less ice that's critical to the way they hunt and survive.
As Arctic sea ice retreats up to 700 miles from the shoreline during summer months, bears must either head north or swim south to land as the ice breaks up. In 2011, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service scientists working in the area have counted 49 bears within 10 miles of Kaktovik, the largest concentration of the estimated 70-80 spread along the coastline.
Those bears represent up to 10 percent of the southern Beaufort population, estimated at 1,500 animals five years ago by U.S. Geological Survey.
The number of polar bears coming to land is increasing over the past decade but scientists are unsure why. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the primary threat to polar bears is the loss of sea ice habitat due to climate change. Whale remains left by local substance hunters may be another factor.
"A lot of bears showed up just after a big wind storm," said polar bear guide Robert Thompson of Kaktovik. "Biologists said they saw eight dead polar bears floating in the water. We believe the thin ice broke up beneath them so they had to sink or swim."
The North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management and the U.S Geological Survey have started a new hair-snare DNA sampling program in an effort to understand the polar bears’ fidelity. By using such a snare, biologists can obtain samples without capturing or harming bears. Federal scientists are now genotyping archive samples, genetically identifying every bear captured over the past 20 years. Patterns of when and where individual animals were observed are used to estimate population size and the bears' survival rates. Demographics of future population estimates will come from such studies. It will be years, however, before scientists understand:
• If the same bears repeatedly return to land;
• If the bears return to land by chance or do so because their behavior is changing as they adapt to declining sea ice.
The relationship between the local community and the bears is usually harmonious, but some residents fear the delicate balance will be tipped in the future. Community members employed by the North Slope Borough and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staffers conduct daily polar bear patrols after several polar bears come ashore.
A particular concern is avoiding the association of humans with food. Food conditioning could mean that nuisance bears are killed to ensure the safety of local residents. In some ways, the local community benefits from the bears' recent arrival as polar-bear tourism has surged. Streams of visitors file through Kaktovik during the summer. One sightseeing tour company, Warbelows, advertise guaranteed polar bear expeditions, urging visitors to "Fly above the Arctic Circle to view polar bears in the wild before they're gone."
Bears are incredibly adaptive but the species is unlikely to survive onshore. Although polar bears are the biggest four-legged carnivore on land, larger than the brown bears that dominate Alaska's interior. But food onshore in the Arctic is limited, and there is simply nothing comparable to a seal caught in the sea ice. Although some bears will adapt and survive, according to Eric Regehr from Fish and Wildlife, "It is inconceivable that 1,500 bears can survive and find enough nutrition on shore."
Oil giant Shell has obtained the preliminary permits that will allow the company to operate in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas next year. But some are concerned that petroleum drilling could irrevocably tarnish the environment. Shell claims it will be able to cleanup 95 percent of any oil spilled, even though cleaning up a large scale spill in Arctic waters has never been demonstrated.
"If things don't change, the polar bears might be extinct in 50 years," says Thompson, the polar bear guide from Kaktovik. "They can't catch food on land and are here because of the shrinking sea ice."
Thompson worries about the consequences of a spill in Arctic waters.
"They don't have the equipment, they don't have the people, they don't even have a Coast Guard (presence) and they certainly do not have the infrastructure. It is an impossible situation. Less than 10 percent was recovered in the Gulf of Mexico, and the conditions here are totally different."
Point Hope and a group of 12 environmental organizations have challenged in court the validity of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement's conditional approval of Shell's exploration plan. Subsistence whale hunters are concerned about whether the path of bowhead whale migration conflicts with development plans.
If Shell gets the go-ahead, it could set a path for drilling several huge oil reserves in Arctic waters. "There is reason to be optimistic that our permits will survive a court challenge," Shell vice president Pete Slaiby told Petroleum News in September.
Shell is expected to announce shortly whether it continues planning to drill in 2012's open-water season. The U.S. Coast Guard, National Marine Fisheries Service and Fish and Wildlife Service have yet to authorize drilling operation's safety zone and whether the incidental take of such wildlife as polar bears and whales will be permitted.
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