The first thing you do when you see a polar bear on the sea ice near Barrow, Alaska, is to not panic. The bears have been there long before you, and they will continue to be there long after you’ve gone. Stay calm, and then move on to the second thing you do when you meet a bear on the ice: look to your bear guard for guidance.
For several years now, Barrow-based CPS partner UMIAQ has provided scientists with dedicated bear guards. Most of these native, North Slope Alaskans were born and raised in Barrow, and their familiarity with the climate, the landscape, and, yes, the bears makes them ideal counterparts for researchers and their teams.
“There are always bears out there, though you can barely see them,” says GlennRoy Nashaknik, who has been working as a bear guard for four years. “We’ve got the training and the experience of knowing what to look for and how to react.”
Encounters with the wild
In his four years as a bear guard, Nashaknik says he’s had only one truly nerve-wracking encounter. In that instance, the bear was close to the field team when he spotted it. He radioed his supervisor, revved his snowmobile engine, and had the help of a local wildlife specialist to scare the bear away.
Most of the time the bears are as eager to leave the humans be as the humans are keen to not disturb the bears. However, occasionally research teams may inadvertently startle a mother bear with cubs, which is a particularly dangerous scenario as female bears are notoriously aggressive when protecting their young.
Nashaknik says that he and his fellow bear guards know where the majority of dens are and can steer researchers away from sensitive areas. The guards also have an innate understanding of and appreciation for the landscape. After all, it is their home.
“I love getting out in the field and working with the researchers,” he says. “Riding on the ice in snowmobiles definitely beats sitting behind a desk all day.”
Even when the temperature dips well below zero degrees Fahrenheit, Nashaknik and his colleagues don’t mind the chill. They’ve spent their lives dressing for the harsh weather, and they have the tools and expertise to navigate their snowmachines in even the most inclement weather.
And then, of course, there are the polar bears. The trained bear guards bring technical expertise and cultural understanding of polar bears. They help maintain safety when science groups unintentionally disturb bears, when polar bears meander near research sites, and in the unlikely scenario that a polar bear views the science team as prey.
Guarding against bears requires around-the-clock vigilance. While some researchers are trained in bear behavior and could provide vigil, watching for bears steals precious science time.
Top of the food chain
At 1,500 pounds, polar bears are the largest Arctic predator. They use sea ice to hunt for seals and other prey. Barrow, Alaska, is a coastal community whose sea ice once extended to 60 miles offshore from Barrow. A warming climate has shrunk that distance to only 10 miles, increasing the likelihood that humans conducting research and bears hunting for food will interact.
These predatory bears are also fiercely protective of their young and extremely nimble and fast. Females with young bears will almost always charge when surprised. Given the bears’ successful camouflage and solitary behavior, often they are spotted only when they are in close proximity to humans. Nonetheless, the bears are wild animals. Most will flee when startled. The Bear Guards concentrate on scaring away those bears and protecting against mother and aggressive bears that don’t leave the area immediately.
Polar bear protection
Their methods are in accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), and the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), where they are listed as “threatened.” Avoidance of any conflict with polar bears is always a bear guard’s first line of defense – they do this by scouting the research area for signs of polar bears. If the bear guards encounter a polar bear they try to scare the bear away by revving the engine of their snow machine and use other noise-making efforts. As a last resort, bear guards also carry lethal shells but, to date, they have not been required to use them.
All guards receive extensive training on animal behavior and firearms. They also bring an inherent, cultural knowledge and respect for bears to the job. Their unique insight provides immeasurable value to the scientists’ research. Their knowledge of sea ice, history, and native traditions enables them to elucidate the scientists’ understanding of the environment in which they work. Their presence, according to researcher evaluations, is invaluable.
“I can never boast or praise about the quality and usefulness of our bear guard enough,” wrote Craig Aumack, a post-doctoral scholar at Columbia University, who is studying the sea-ice food web. “Do their jobs effectively and conduct themselves professionally, seem genuinely interested in our scientific goals and use their local system knowledge to compliment and assist our study anyway they can. I can honestly say that the bear guard[s] not only facilitate our scientific endeavors, but improve on them with their intimate knowledge of ice conditions, weather patterns, trail availability/conditions, and equipment maintenance.”
Nashaknik says the guards reciprocate the appreciation.
“It’s great going out with the researchers,” he says. “I’m constantly learning.”
Given the predictions for increased warming, which will likely result in more loss of sea ice, interactions between bears and humans may increase. Fortunately, in the company of bear guards, research teams can move forward with confidence. After all, the bear guards play a critical role in ensuring the safety of all species. —Rachel Walker