At the southern edge of Kaktovik, a tiny village on Alaska’s North Slope, the polar bear came around Chris Gordon’s yard on a winter night in 2018. He’d left whale meat out that was being prepared for a village feast, a common practice.
The bear wouldn’t go away. Gordon shot and killed it. Polar bears are a federally protected marine mammal listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
“Got put down tonight,” Gordon wrote in a Facebook post, which showed the bear’s carcass lying in his yard next to a snowmachine. He added later: “I did what I know is right. I can’t let a bear feast on what’s going to be shared.”
On Friday, a federal judge sentenced Gordon, 36, to pay a $4,500 fine and serve three months in prison — not for killing the bear, but for what he did afterward.
As a coastal-dwelling Alaska Native, Gordon was entitled to kill the bear by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but only if he did so without wasting the animal. But instead of harvesting its meat or salvaging the bear’s skin, Gordon left the carcass in his yard for five months before having it moved to the village dump and burned, he acknowledged in a plea agreement filed in December.
“We know that the parties were preparing muktuk in the traditional fashion. That’s all part of village life, and that’s fine,” Judge Ralph Beistline told Gordon at Friday’s sentencing. “We’re not criticizing shooting the bear. We’re criticizing the manner in which it was dealt with once killed.”
Gordon’s criminal prosecution, for a single violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, is unusual. But his case underscores the tensions that arise as polar bears increasingly disrupt village life in Kaktovik, where climate change is melting nearby sea ice and driving the bears ashore.
[Read more: In Kaktovik, sea ice loss means a boom in polar bear tourism]
Some villagers have capitalized on the bears’ presence by becoming tour guides, charging visitors thousands of dollars to travel to Kaktovik and see the bears from the safety of boats. But other residents argue that the tourism boom is making the bears more comfortable around people, and risking everyone’s safety.
In the last tourist season, there were two “close encounters” with polar bears that “almost killed some people,” Edward Rexford, the president of Kaktovik’s tribal government, told Beistline at Friday’s hearing.
“We are getting a lot of negative impacts from that tourism. Polar bears are getting habituated to humans and causing human health and welfare problems,” Rexford said. “This is a very dangerous community that we live in.”
Gordon’s case, which grew out of a late December evening in 2018, underscores some of those dangers, even as his response drew community condemnation.
In addition to his federal prison sentence, Kaktovik’s tribal government and a polar bear management council jointly imposed additional penalties on Gordon: three years of probation, $1,000 in restitution, 300 hours of community service, a public apology to the village and a year-long ban on subsistence polar bear hunting.
Gordon, a captain of one of Kaktovik’s whaling crews, had left small portions of bowhead spread around his yard in the sub-zero temperatures. Bowhead is an important subsistence food source for Kaktovik; Gordon was preparing the meat for a village feast in a traditional style that keeps the chunks from freezing together, his attorney wrote in a sentencing memorandum last week.
The North Slope’s borough government runs a polar bear patrol program in Kaktovik, but that night, members weren’t working, Gordon and Rexford both said at Friday’s hearing. Gordon also said he tried called an emergency number.
“I didn’t want to kill it. Really,” Gordon said Friday. But he’d run out of non-lethal ammunition and, Gordon added: “That thing just kept coming back.”
Prosecutors noted that Kaktovik has bear-resistant food storage lockers available that Gordon chose not to use.
After the shooting, a member of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, told Gordon “multiple times” that he needed to tag and report the bear. But he did neither, according to prosecutors.
Gordon told USFWS agents in an interview that he didn’t harvest the bear’s meat because he didn’t want to spill its blood around the frozen whale, prosecutors said.
“I did what I wanted to do to stop it from eating my muktuk,” Gordon said, according to prosecutors’ sentencing memorandum. “I asked a few people if they wanted it, they said ‘no.’”
As the dead bear languished in Gordon’s yard, it drew attention and dismay from other Kaktovik residents — including one unnamed witness who posted a video about it on Facebook. At Friday’s sentencing hearing, prosecutors played the clip, in which a woman describes the scene outside Gordon’s house over the sound of an idling four-wheeler.
“Here we have a dead nanuq (bear), because this family refused to put their food away properly and be shepherds of this blessing. I am so upset right now. Kaktovik, we need to come together and stop this,” the woman said. “This is not okay, and it’s crossed a line.”
After the woman posted the video, prosecutors said that the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission — a group that Gordon belongs to — pressured her to take down her post. The group told her it “could potentially harm their subsistence and whaling rights,” prosecutors said.
The commission’s executive director, Arnold Brower, did not respond to a request for comment.
A few weeks after the bear was killed, it was hit by a snow removal vehicle, ripping off one of its paws. Then, in May, Gordon had another village resident take the carcass to the village dump, where workers were burning trash. USFWS agents later found the bear’s “charred remains” there, prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memorandum.
“The single paw, ripped off by the snow removal vehicle, remained on defendant’s lawn,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memorandum. “The next day, the defendant told federal agents that they could take the polar bear’s paw because it would ‘save me a trip to the dump.’”
In Gordon’s own sentencing memorandum, his attorney, Brian Stibitz, argued that the federal government’s case against him demonstrated a misunderstanding and ignorance of Alaska Native “custom and cultural practices” — in particular, by suggesting that Gordon was irresponsible for leaving the bowhead meat in his yard. That method “is a traditional method of preparing muktuk, and is encouraged among whaling captains,” Stibitz wrote.
Stibitz’s argument echoes a separate one also made by village residents: That USFWS, which manages the neighboring Arctic Refuge, prioritizes the well-being of polar bears and tourists over the safety of Native people who live in Kaktovik.
“We know and respect the interest that the urban people seem to have in protecting the endangered species of animals and plants here. What about us?” Fenton Rexford, a Kaktovik elder, asked USFWS officials at a June community meeting.
Federal authorities said they did not pursue the case against Gordon lightly, or out of a lack of sensitivity to the impact of polar bears on his village. Gordon’s violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, prosecutors argued in their sentencing memorandum, was “brazen.”
In a prepared statement, a top USFWS official said that the agency has been “working closely with Kaktovik residents, leaders, and other partners for over a decade to address human-bear conflicts.”
“We understand the challenges bears pose to the community,” the statement quoted Steve Berendzen, the Arctic Refuge manager, as saying. “Together, we’ve taken some positive steps, including food-storage locker installation and local polar bear patrols. We’ll keep working with our partners to look at additional solutions.”