Alaska Zoo takes in orphaned Prudhoe Bay polar bear cub

a polar bear cub
A lone male polar bear cub spotted Nov. 24, 2022 near Prudhoe Bay oil drilling facilities by Hilcorp staff has been taken to the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage for care. (Alaska Zoo via USFWS)

An underweight polar bear cub roaming alone near oil drilling facilities at Prudhoe Bay last month has been taken to the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage.

The bear was first spotted around Thanksgiving eating foxes and, after a few days, observers confirmed that it was orphaned, according to David Gustine, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s polar bear program lead.

Fish and Wildlife sent a team of polar bear biologists to Prudhoe Bay to check on the cub.

“The team, in consultation with the Alaska Zoo veterinarian, made the difficult and rare decision that the approximately 10 to 11-month-old male bear should be removed from the wild population,” agency officials wrote in a statement Wednesday. “This decision was made because the bear was exhibiting comfort around people, raising concerns for potential human-bear conflicts.”

Gustine said the cub wouldn’t have survived on its own since it was separated from its mother so early. Cubs typically spend up to two and a half years with their mothers. The decision to capture rather than kill the polar bear cub was based in part on zoo capacity in Alaska and beyond, said Gustine.

a polar bear cub
A lone male polar bear cub spotted Nov. 24, 2022 near Prudhoe Bay oil drilling facilities by Hilcorp staff has been taken to the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage for care. (Alaska Zoo via USFWS)

“The bright side here is there is lots of demand for polar bears in the U.S. zoo system,” he said. “And so we have options to work with our zoo partners – obviously the Alaska Zoo here in Anchorage has space and the need, and they’re a great partner.”

To catch the cub, he said, biologists put out a tube-shaped, 10-foot-long “culvert trap.” It was then sedated and crated as cargo on an Alaska Airlines flight from Deadhorse to Anchorage.

Fish and Wildlife said the cub weighed in slightly underweight at 103 pounds.  Polar bear cubs at a similar age typically weigh in at 120 to 220 pounds. It also had small cuts on its upper lip. The cub is being treated at the zoo, and is not on public display.

“Our primary concern is for the wellbeing of the cub,” said Alaska Zoo Executive Director Patrick Lampi. “It had been observed eating a fox, (and the) lacerations on its upper lip are likely from that activity. With rabies in fox prevalent in the Prudhoe Bay area, we have special extended quarantine procedures in place for this cub.”

The cub’s ultimate fate has yet to be decided, although Fish and Wildlife said it will not be released into the wild due to its age and familiarity with humans.

“The decision to remove this bear from the wild was not made lightly,” said Gustine. “Removing a bear is not a good outcome for the individual or the wild population, but we felt it was the best course of action in this situation.”

Aside from the bear being “a little on the small side,” Gustine said everything else seemed about normal for a cub so far.

“Outside of that, you know, it was a wild animal, a wild bear, behaved I think normal given the circumstances,” he said. “Which is just what you want to see, and a good prospect for him doing well in captivity.”

The last polar bear cub removed from the wild in Alaska was Kali, a male discovered near Point Lay in 2013 by a hunter who shot its mother without realizing the sow had a cub.

After initial care at the Alaska Zoo, Kali was eventually resettled at the St. Louis Zoo and remains there today.

The Alaska Zoo on Wednesday posted a video of the Prudhoe Bay polar bear cub in a snowy enclosure playing with an empty bucket. The zoo said the bear is doing well.

“Zookeepers are caring for him, providing him with lots of enrichment and helping him to adjust to his new surroundings,” said the post.

(Sam Lavin/Alaska Zoo)

The Alaska Zoo currently has one female polar bear, Cranbeary. Its prior polar bear residents, Ahpun and Lyutyik, died a few years ago.

Fish and Wildlife’s Division of Management Authority will decide whether  the new cub will stay at the Alaska Zoo or move elsewhere, according to Gustine.

“I think we’re pretty optimistic that the bear will remain here in Anchorage at the Alaska Zoo, but we’re not certain at this point,” he said.

Neither Fish and Wildlife Service nor Zoo staff have yet decided what to call the bear, Gustine said.

“No names. No names yet, no,” he said, laughing. “They’ll talk to the zoo about that.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service thanked the zoo for its help housing the Prudhoe Bay cub, as well as Hilcorp for initially reporting the animal and Alaska Clean Seas for logistical and field support.

[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]

Previous articleRep. Eastman isn’t just an Oath Keeper but also supported their cause on Jan. 6, opposing attorney argues
Next articleAlaska’s first Miss America, Emma Broyles, reflects on her year in the spotlight