ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) – A polar bear stalked several residents around a small, isolated Alaska Native whaling village, killing a mother and her 1-year-old son in an extremely rare attack before another member of the community shot and killed the bear. bear, officials said.
The fatal attack, the first in more than 30 years in Alaska, took place on Tuesday near the school in Wales, an isolated Bering Strait coastal community located on the westernmost tip of the North American continent – about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Russia – which is no stranger to coexistence with polar bears.
Summer Myomick of Saint Michael and her son, Clyde Ongtowasruk, were killed in the attack, Alaska State Troopers said in a statement.
Myomick’s parents declined interviews with the Associated Press when they arrived at their home on Wednesday.
“It’s very, very sad for Saint Michael right now and for Wales,” said Virginia Washington, city administrator of Saint Michael. She said Myomick divides her time between the two communities.
“She was a very sweet lady, she was very responsible,” Washington said.
Like many far-flung Alaskan villages, the predominantly Inupiaq community of about 150 people in Wales has organized patrols when bears are expected in town, from December to May, said Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bear International. The last fatal polar bear encounter in Alaska was in 1990.
Bad weather and a lack of lights on Wales’ gravel airstrip prevented soldiers and wildlife officials from reaching Wales on the Tuesday after the attack. Attempts were made again on Wednesday.
When asked to describe the weather in Wales on Wednesday, Dawn Hendrickson, the school principal, called it “traumatic”. Classes were canceled and counselors were being made available.
She said there have yet to be any announcements of memorials for the two victims. “We are still in the early stages,” she said.
It’s unclear whether this onslaught is related to climate change, but it’s consistent with what’s expected, as the Arctic continues to warm at four times the rate of the rest of Earth, changing the ecosystem in ways that are not yet fully understood, he said. York.
However, this particular bear is part of a population that is doing very well, said Andrew Derocher, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta and an expert on polar bears.
Alaskan scientists from the US Geological Survey in 2019 found that changes in sea ice habitat coincided with evidence that land use by polar bears was increasing and that the chances of a polar bear encounter increased.
Wales is just over 100 miles northwest of Nome. The community is accessible by plane and boats, including barges that deliver household goods. Winter trails provide snowmobile access to other communities and subsistence hunting areas. ATVs are used for non-winter hunting and fishing trips.
Polar bears are the largest bear species, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Males can weigh over 1,700 pounds (771 kg), but typically weigh 600 to 1,200 pounds (272–544 kg) and reach up to 10 feet (3 meters) in length. Females weigh 400 to 700 pounds (181 to 318 kg). Polar bears usually feed on seals, but they also prey on walruses and beluga whales.
Polar bears were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. They are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Both laws prohibit harming animals without authorization unless necessary for human safety.
Polar bears are at the top of the food chain and look to humans as a source of food, York said. Fatal polar bear encounters usually involve young bears, usually males, who are hungry all the time, or older bears who are injured or sick and have difficulty getting enough calories.
“Both types of bears are more likely to take risks, as we’ve seen here in Wales,” York said.
Unlike brown or black bears, polar bears do not hibernate in winter. Only pregnant females enter snow burrows, and that’s just for breeding.
All other polar bears are loose, usually on sea ice, where their prey is available year-round.
The Alaska Nannut Co-Management Council, which was created to represent “the collective voice of Alaska Natives in polar bear co-management,” says on its website that polar bears near or entering villages pose ongoing safety concerns for communities within polar bear territory.
Joseph Jessup McDermott, executive director of the Alaska Nannut Co-Management Council, which represents tribes that hunt polar bears for subsistence, said the bear patrol in Wales “is not currently active” because it “essentially lost the funding it had.” . The organization has been working with the World Wildlife Fund and other partners to restore the patrol program, McDermott said.
As well as being part of the bear patrol programme, York said Wales had taken other measures to keep polar bears out of the community.
The bear is from a population in the Chukchi Sea that is doing well amid climate change, Derocher said. This means that the attack could be the result of a bear attracted to attractants such as food or garbage.
Polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea, east of the Chukchi Sea population, are in worse shape, Derocher said.
In this case, although there is ice in the Chukchi and Northern Bering Seas, the quality of that ice is not as well known. More importantly, York said he doesn’t know what’s going on under the ice – or what the availability of seals and other prey is for polar bears.
Whittle reported from Portland, Maine. Associated Press writers Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska and Eugene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.
This article has been updated to correct York’s statement that bears in Wales are expected from December to May, not July to November.
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