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Protecting polar bears and people

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I’m in Tromsø in Norway this week, which is north of the Arctic circle. WWF has brought together some of the world’s leading polar bear experts from Russia, Norway, Greenland, Canada and Alaska in the US – the polar bear ‘range states’ – for a workshop at the Fram High North Research Centre for Climate and the Environment.

Rod Downie with a polar bear sculptureLuckily this one isn’t real – otherwise I definitely wouldn’t be this close! © WWF-UK

We’re here to chart the way forward for minimising conflict in the Arctic between polar bears and humans. The aim is simple – safer people and safer bears.

In many places across the Arctic, polar bears are spending more time on land during the summer. This is because there is less sea-ice for them to hunt on – a direct result of a warming Arctic. Increasing human activity in some areas is resulting in more contact between bears and people. The bears are increasingly attracted into settlements by human sources of food and rubbish dumps.

We learnt how Ittoqqortoormiit, a town in Greenland, is literally ‘invaded’ by polar bears between July and August. Such events are relatively new in Greenland, and the inhabitants are linking them to the early break up and late formation of sea ice.

And it’s predicted to get worse.

Such interactions may result in injury or death to humans, damage to property and – more often – death or injury to the bear. But to date, little data has been collected to quantify the scale of the problem at a circum-arctic scale.

Polar bear crossing between ice flowsPolar bears have huge ranges, which often brings them into contact with people. © Steve Morello / WWF-Canon

Polar bears are naturally curious and intelligent animals. In their white landscape, anything that is not also uniformally white might be edible, and at the very least is worth checking out. And bears are becoming habituated to people and coastal communities.

Over the course of the three days, we focused on case studies of human and bear interaction. Like snowflakes, no two polar bears interactions are identical. We also shared lessons learnt from the many polar bear management schemes already in place.

In Chukotka, East Russia, WWF has been supporting community-based monitoring of polar bears since 2007. The members of the Umky patrol monitor the movements of polar bears, and take action to deter them when they come into the villages. What started as one polar bear brigade in one village has now expanded across villages thousands of miles apart across the Russian arctic.

Satellite tags, like the one being attached here, keep an eye on polar bears – giving a better idea of their wanderings and where they feed. © Kean Moynihan / WWF-Canada

In Churchill, Canada, bears that repeatedly come into town are held in a Bear Jail for up to 30 days, to reduce the chance of re-offending. Problem bears are fitted with an electronic ear tag which warns the officials if the bears come back within 5 miles of the community.

One of the aims of the workshop was to examine the range of methodologies and tools currently used to deter bears or chase them away from human settlements, ranging from fences to fire hoses and pyrotechnics to non-lethal projectiles. We also learnt of a dynamic new management tool which is being developed to record and analyse known and future interactions between bears and people across the Arctic, in order to pinpoint hotspots or problem areas to focus attention – as well as to track problem individual bears and to analyse the effectiveness of different deterrent techniques.

Polar bear with an ear tag.Ear tags, such as the one in this sedated polar bear, are useful to see which individuals show up and where – and give a better idea of polar bear habits. © Kean Moynihan / WWF-Canada

“We have an opportunity to develop plans and programs on the ground and across the Arctic ahead of anticipated increases in conflict situations,” says Geoff York, WWF lead on polar bears. The most important factor will be for the Arctic nations to work together to tackle this increasing problem head on.

And for me personally… what a huge privilege to spend time with so many experts who are passionate about the conservation of the Arctic – and of this iconic Arctic species.

WWF recognizes 2013 as the Year of the Polar Bear, and is encouraging the range states to make firm commitments to polar bear conservation at the Moscow meeting.

The Tromsø meeting was partly funded by the joint WWF / Coca-Cola Arctic Home campaign, the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund and by WWF-UK polar bear adoptions. Get involved!

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