Living with Wildlife

Coexisting With Polar Bears

Defenders of Wildlife has long been an active voice for the protection of polar bears in the face of the complex threats posed by climate change. We worked to ensure Alaska’s polar bears were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2008. Since then more than 187,000 square miles have been designated critical polar bear habitat. We continue to advocate permanent protection for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest onshore denning site for polar bears. We also oppose drilling in Alaska’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas, because no proven method exists to clean up and control oil spills in the icy Arctic seas where the polar bear, a marine mammal, lives. 

The Obama administration has acknowledged that polar bears are in serious trouble, but continues to exempt the leading threat to the species’ survival—the greenhouse-gas pollution that causes climate change—from regulation under the ESA. Meanwhile, rising temperatures are melting the sea ice polar bears depend on for hunting seals, forcing the bears to spend more time on land- increasingly bringing them into contact—and conflict—with people. 

Given all the threats now facing polar bears, Defenders recognizes that addressing conflicts between people and polar bears is essential to increasing the species’ odds for survival. To reduce conflicts and the polar bear fatalities that can result, Defenders is working with partners on several efforts to promote coexistence.

Field-testing polar-bear-resistant food lockers 

With the ice cellars traditionally used by Alaska Native communities failing as the permafrost melts, Defenders has joined forces with World Wildlife Fund to fund a food storage locker pilot program in Kaktovik, Alaska. Securing food supplies in these lockers keeps polar bears from being lured into the community, preventing them from learning to associate people with food and reducing the risk of conflict. Results from the program informed other planned projects in other coastal communities across the North Slope. The food storage lockers were tested during the fall-winter of 2013. The results initially were promising. But the polar bears figured out how to break into the lockers, so we are working with partners to fund and build stronger food storage lockers. We’re also working with renewable energy organizations to identify practical ways to cool the lockers in summer to ensure that food does not spoil.

Working with Alaska Native communities to reduce human polar bear conflicts

In 2012, Defenders — working with partners Alaska Nanuuq Commission, World Wildlife Fund and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service — hosted a workshop with communities from Alaska, Canada and Russia who were experiencing increasing conflicts with polar bears to examine the use of deterrence methods. The 12 Alaskan communities and Russian and Canadian colleagues all agreed that these tools are useful. The workshop participants look forward to future trainings to ensure that polar bears and their communities remain safe. 

In 2013 Defenders began working with partners Alaska Nanuuq Commission and the Alaska Teen Media Institute to develop and distribute youth-focused polar bear safety messages in social media formats. These media products will be completed in 2014.

Exploring diversionary feeding 

Defenders convened a workshop in Alaska in 2010 to bring experts from the U.S., Canada and Russia together to examine the use of diversionary feeding as a polar bear coexistence and conservation tool. This method involves moving food attractants such as animal remains to a safe location away from human communities. Polar bears and other wildlife can then feed without connecting the food source to people, thereby reducing the risk of conflict. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is using the workshop results to inform Alaska coastal communities about the use of diversionary feeding as a tool in wildlife management and conservation going forward.

Disseminating science-based information

Defenders commissioned and published Sea Bear Under Siege: Polar Bears and Climate Change in Alaska in 2009, a comprehensive review that details habitat changes related to climate change and recommendations for action. We are using this report with communities and federal and state agencies to promote coexistence and conservation strategies.

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