ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A polar bear chased several residents around a small Alaskan whaling village before shooting a bear from another community, killing a mother and her 1-year-old son in an extremely rare attack. said.
The first fatal mauling in Alaska in more than 30 years happened Tuesday next to the front entrance of a school in Wales, which is located on the western tip of the North American mainland — about 50 miles (80 kilometers) away. ) from Russia – Coexistence with polar bears is nothing new.
School officials rushed people into the building when they spotted the polar bear, Bering Strait School District Chief Executive Susan Netsa told the Anchorage Daily News from her office in Unalakleet.
“The bear tried to get in with them,” Netsa said, but Principal Dan Hendrickson “knocked on the door” to keep it out.
“It’s scary. You’re never prepared,” Netsa, who did not return messages to The Associated Press on Wednesday, said.
The school authorities pulled the shutters from the school and locked the building. They eventually said they needed someone to “take care of the bear.”
Summer Mayomik of St. Michael and her son Clyde Ongdowasruk were killed in the attack, Alaska State Troopers said in a statement.
Myomick’s parents declined interviews with The Associated Press when reached at their home Wednesday.
“It’s very sad for St. Michael and Wales right now,” said Virginia Washington, St. Michael’s city administrator. She said Mayomik split his time between the two communities.
“She’s a very sweet lady. She’s very responsible,” Washington said.
Like many remote Alaska villages, the Inupiaq community of about 150 people in Wales has organized patrols from December to May, when bears are expected in town, said Jeff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bear International. The last polar bear encounter in Alaska was in 1990.
Bad weather and a lack of runway lighting at the Wales gravel airstrip prevented troopers and wildlife officers from going there on Tuesday to investigate the attack, but they did so on Wednesday. In the investigation, Miomik and Ongdowasruk were walking between the school and the clinic when the bear attacked them, according to a state trooper’s report.
The bodies of the mother and son have been taken to the Office of the State Medical Examiner for post-mortem, the soldiers added.
Asked to describe the mood at Wells on Wednesday, school principal Hendrickson called it “shocking.” Classes were canceled and counselors were prepared.
He said that there is no announcement yet about the memorials for the two deceased. “We’re still in the early stages,” said Hendrickson, who spoke to the AP earlier in the day but did not elaborate on the polar bear trying to break into the school.
It’s unclear whether the attack is related to climate change, but it’s consistent with what’s expected as the Arctic continues to warm, changing the ecosystem in ways that aren’t yet fully understood, York said.
However, this particular bear was a member of a population that was doing very well, said Andrew Derocher, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta and an expert on polar bears.
In 2019, Alaska scientists at the US Geological Survey found that changes in sea ice habitat coincided with increased land use by polar bears and increased opportunities for polar bear encounters.
Wales is about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Nome. The community is accessible by air and boats, including boats that deliver household goods. Winter trails provide access to other communities and viable hunting grounds on snowmobiles. ATVs are used for non-winter hunting and fishing trips.
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, polar bears are the largest bear species. Males weigh up to 1,700 pounds (771 kilograms), but typically range from 600 to 1,200 pounds (272–544 kilograms) and 10 feet (3 meters) in length. Females weigh 400 to 700 pounds (181-318 kilograms). Polar bears usually eat seals, but also hunt walruses and beluga whales.
Polar bears are listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act of 2008. They are 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 see humans as a food source, York said. A fatal polar bear encounter usually involves young bears, usually males, who are always hungry or older bears who are injured or sick and have difficulty getting enough calories.
“Both of those bear species are more likely to take risks, as we’ve seen here in Wales,” Yorke said.
Unlike brown or black bears, polar bears do not hibernate in winter. Only pregnant females enter the ice cave and that is only for breeding.
All other polar bears are outdoors, usually on sea ice where their prey is available year-round.
The Alaska Nannut Co-Management Council, created to represent a “collaborative Alaska Native voice in polar bear co-management,” states on its website that polar bears encroaching near or into villages represent current conservation concerns for communities in polar bear territory.
Joseph Jessup McDermott, executive director of the Alaska Nunnery Co-Management Council, which represents tribes that hunt polar bears for a living, said bear patrols in Wales are “not active at the moment” because it “basically lost what funding”. McDermott said the organization is working with the World Wildlife Fund and other partners to restore the patrol program.
The bear was from a population in the Chukchi Sea that is thriving amid climate change, Derocher said. That means the attack may be the result of a bear being attracted to attractants such as food or garbage.
Polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea east of the Chukchi Sea population are in poor condition, Derocher said.
However, although there is ice in the Chukchi and northern Bering Seas, the quality of that ice is not well known. More importantly, York said, they don’t know what’s going on beneath the ice — or the availability of seals and other prey for polar bears.
Whittle reported from Portland, Maine. Associated Press writers Becky Borer in Alaska and Eugene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.
This article has been updated to correct York’s claim that bears are expected in Wales from December to May, not July to November.