Polar bear attacks on humans are rare, but there is evidence they are increasing and reason for concern as we plan for a world with less sea ice. In many incidents, the bears are simply curious. In others, they are undernourished, frightened, or provoked. Managers expect human-polar bear encounters to increase as more polar bears spend longer periods of time onshore and as human activities increase, both in response to longer ice-free seasons.
Such increased encounters have already started to happen. Over the past few years, sea ice losses have led to more polar bear sightings in northern coastal communities. At the same time, more people are working and recreating in polar bear country. The combination has led to an uptick in human-polar bear encounters. Some of these have had tragic endings, for both humans and the bears, but more frequently are negative for the bears.
Dr. Tom Smith, an expert on human-bear conflicts, says that, when in polar bear country, you can avoid negative outcomes with a few simple steps:
- Minimize attractants (items with strong odors, including food and some chemicals)
- Stay alert to your surroundings
- Carry pepper spray (100% effective), a firearm (76% effective), and other non-lethal deterrents (flares, bear bangers, etc.)
- If the bear is out of spray range, use other deterrents like a flare or banger
- If camping, string a trip wire alarm system and/or an electric fence around your campsite. If you have to camp in an area with polar bear activity, set a watch.
- Always travel in a group of two or more and stay together if a bear approaches
Can a community learn to live with polar bears? Hundreds of polar bears gather near Churchill, Manitoba, every fall to wait for the sea ice to form on Hudson Bay. Residents are proud of the town's designation as the polar bear capital of the world and the province goes to great lengths to protect the bears that support the town's thriving ecotourism industry.
In 1982, Manitoba Conservation built a holding facility to house problem bears that come too close to town during the fall migration. And it has developed a highly successful Polar Bear Alert Program. The program has reduced—but not eliminated—negative polar bear-human encounters. Both residents and visitors are urged to be "on the alert" during polar bear season, always keeping an eye out for polar bears that might wander into town.
North of Churchill, the community of Arviat has also initiated a grassroots effort to keep both polar bears and humans safe in and around their town. Conservation officers seasonally supplement their patrol efforts in partnership with the hamlet, putting more eyes on the ground during the busy polar bear season. A specific hot spot of conflict in Arviat were dog team yards, where sled dogs are housed and fed. To reduce bear incursions, local mushers move their dogs into one large area closer to town, surrounded by electric fencing.
In Alaska, the North Slope Borough, a regional government overseeing a huge swath of the northern coast, uses a combination of people from their wildlife management team and seasonal polar bear patrol staff to protect communities in their region, responding to polar bear sightings 24/7 and making sure people and bears stay safe.