Polar bear attacks are extremely rare, and many questions remain after fatal mauling in Wales

A polar bear looks out over a barrier island on the Arctic coast of Alaska. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

There are many unanswered questions about the fatal polar bear attack in Wales on Tuesday, all pointing to the biggest question of all: Why did it happen?

As the community grieves the loss of two residents, researchers and officials are delicately trying to learn more.

That includes Geoff York, the senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International.

York says polar bear attacks are extremely rare — the last fatal mauling in Alaska was more than three decades ago — but the big, white bears are not an uncommon sight in Wales.


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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Geoff York: (My) first reaction was absolute sadness. I’ve been to Wales. I’ve worked with people in Wales. It’s a fantastic community, a strong community. And, yeah, my heart goes out to all those involved, friends and family across the region, I’m sure who are still trying to, you know, understand what happened. Like you said, these attacks in Alaska are thankfully very rare. And they’re even more rare in January, that far north. That region right now has a lot of sea ice, and polar bears should be out on that ice hunting seals.

Casey Grove: Yeah, let’s talk about that a little bit more, because it seems like in past years, where there hasn’t been as much sea ice, and we’ve talked about that, as the climate continues to warm, year after year, that the problem for polar bears is that they need that sea ice as a platform to hunt from, right?

GY: Right. Polar bears have evolved as a what we’d call an “obligate predator.” They hunt other animals for the sole source of all of their calories. And they’ve specifically evolved for a high fat marine mammal diet. It’s almost impossible to replace, outside that marine environment. Those calories just don’t exist on shore, especially in the Arctic. And so they’re very highly refined for a very specific type of prey and a very specific source of energy that keeps them going through those long winters.

CG: So, I guess, given all that, and with the understanding that this just happened on Tuesday, what do you make of all that? I mean, why would this have happened?

GY: We just don’t know right now. Details are still coming out. Key partners like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, key partners with the state of Alaska, haven’t been able to get into town. They’re also being very respectful that that community is grieving and still reeling from the actual events that happened there. So we just don’t know all of those details yet.

CG: Gotcha, yeah. What kind of things would folks heading there — trying to figure out what happened — what would they be looking at?

GY: The team going in will look at a number of things. They’ll definitely try to get their hands on the bear itself and see if there’s, you know, clear indications of the bear being in poor body condition. They’ll look at the age of the bear, the health of the bear, if they can, the sex of the bear. And then they’ll talk to local community members about the events leading up to and during the event itself and just try to get as much information as possible. It’s difficult to do in these times as people are traumatized by what happened. But it’s also critically important that we get as much information from these events as possible, so we can share lessons learned and share information with other communities going forward. The end goal is to, you know, try to keep people safe.

CG: Yeah. If the sea ice is doing well, right now, in that area, are there reasons why polar bears might still be very hungry or might be even starving, even with that?

GY: I think that’s an interesting question. And it may well become the crux of questions asked in coming months. And I think it’s important to separate kind of two things. On the one hand, historically, so even going back beyond written records, polar bears have attacked and killed people, potentially for food, regardless of sea ice conditions. So linking one event to this larger environmental phenomenon that’s ongoing today is always a bit risky. That being said, we know that the Chukchi Sea has experienced dramatic changes in sea ice, both sea ice extent, sea ice volume, and then how sea ice behaves during the course of the year, becoming much more dynamic, even during the winter. What we don’t know is what’s fully happening down the ecosystem, what changes are occurring underneath the ice, and how are those changes communicating back to a species like polar bears that live on top of the ice and make their living from all of that productivity, as that entire region changes, as that lid of ice that’s historically been in place for much longer periods of time and has been much more stable over those periods of time, changes. You know, as to what comes next, there are a lot of questions. And change’s already happened, in some cases, if we’re seeing it manifest itself in polar bears.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Casey here

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