A woman and her 1-year-old son were fatally attacked by a polar bear in the small whaling village of Wales, Alaska, last week. A recent lapse in polar bear patrolling in the small West Alaska town may have contributed to the attack, the first fatal mauling by a polar bear in Alaska in 30 years, according to the AP. As bears have less sea ice on which to hunt, they may increasingly encounter humans as they search for food.
On January 17, 24-year-old Summer Myomick had left a local school during a snowstorm with her son Clyde Ongtowasruk; shortly after, amid low visibility, the bear attacked, witnesses said. People in the school went out to attempt to scare off the bear, but it charged them, and they were forced to take shelter back inside, the Associated Press reported. Eventually, a community member arrived with a gun and killed the bear as it continued to maul the woman and baby.
Communities like Wales, Alaska have used polar bear patrols in the past to deter the animals from coming too close to people, relying on bright lights and loud sounds to scare off bears that venture too close. The town of Wales established a patrol in 2014, with help from the World Wildlife Fund, according to the AP, but factors like the spread of covid-19 caused the program to become inactive. Last week’s tragic attack has revived interest in the patrols: “There’s absolutely discussion now in Wales, saying, ‘Hey, maybe things have changed to the point that we need this, and how do we do that?’” Susan Nedza, the chief administrator for the Bering Strait School District, told the AP.
Polar bears typically hunt for ringed and bearded seals out on sea ice. But as the climate crisis shifts weather patterns, contributing to warmer temperatures in the Arctic, the great white north has less ice to support the bears’ dietary needs. This means that some polar bears are wandering closer to towns while scavenging for enough food to survive the long, harsh winters.
“The ice-free period is about three to four weeks longer than it used to be in the 1980s already. And what this translates to is less time hunting for polar bears and less nutrition for them,” Polar Bears International staff scientist Alysa McCall told Earther in 2022. “The worst-case scenario, of course, is that a human gets injured or killed by a polar bear. And while that’s rare, it does happen.”
In 2017, a woman in the Churchill, Manitoba area was nearly killed by a polar bear as she walked home from a Halloween party. Ideally, patrols could help prevent both humans and the vulnerable bears from being killed during human-wildlife interactions.