• U.S.

In Search of the Great White Bear

7 minute read
Ted Gup/St. Lawrence

Above a glistening ice pack in the Bering Sea, a helicopter stalks a polar bear, following paw prints in the snow. The bear suddenly appears as a hint of movement, white against white, padding its way across the ice. The helicopter descends, hovering over the frightened creature, and a shotgun slides out the window, firing a tranquilizer dart into the massive fur-covered rump. Minutes pass. The bear shows no effects. The helicopter drops for a second shot. This time the bear stands its ground, and the pilot, fearing the animal is about to lunge for the aircraft, abruptly noses the chopper skyward. He remembers how a 9-ft. bear once swiped at a helicopter’s skids, shredding the pontoons.

But this bear finally staggers, then stretches out on the ice like a giant sheep dog. The helicopter sets down, and biologist Gerald Garner advances, kicking the bear in the behind to make sure it is immobilized. A swivel of its head and a flashing of teeth warn Garner that there is plenty of defiance left in this 272-kg (600-lb.) carnivore. With a syringe, he injects more drug. At last the head droops, and Garner can proceed. Around the bear’s neck he fastens a vinyl collar containing a computer that will send data to a satellite, allowing scientists to keep track of the animal for a year. By the time Bear No. 6,886 raises its head, the helicopter is safely aloft.

Those tense moments were all in a day’s work for Garner, one of a handful of hearty scientists, pilots and technicians taking part in a ground-breaking and hazardous $700,000 annual U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study of arctic polar bear populations. In an effort to follow the fate of more than 600 bears since the program’s inception, the researchers have braved wind-chill factors of -59 degrees C (-75 degrees F), spartan living conditions, the constant threat of mechanical failures and the peril of being stranded on an ice pack. Last October two government biologists and a pilot vanished while tracking polar bears from the air. Officials believe their helicopter plunged under the ice, muffling their emergency signal. Other researchers have been rescued after a wakeful night on an ice floe.

“This is a very unforgiving environment,” says mechanic Lester Hampton. “The biggest danger is getting caught in bad weather and running low on fuel. The second biggest danger is having a mechanical failure and having to put in out there. The third biggest danger is that after you do, the bears are going to come in and try to eat you up — and that’s if you don’t freeze to death. If you go in that water, it’s a done deal — you’re dead.”

Two decades ago, big-game hunters, not researchers, pursued polar bears from the air and on the ground. A thousand carcasses a year littered the Arctic. The number of ice bears dwindled, and there was worldwide concern that the animal might be hunted to extinction. Today the bears’ recovery is one of the success stories of conservation. Worldwide, polar bears now number as least 20,000, all of which are protected by a 1976 international agreement. Alaska has 3,000 to 5,000 polar bears, and only the state’s Native Americans can hunt them — and strictly for subsistence purposes.

The Fish and Wildlife Service project is part of a continuing effort to advance biologists’ understanding of the polar bear and assess potential new threats against the creature. Researchers, for example, are most concerned about the impact of increasing oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. Another concern comes from the Soviet Union, which has proposed to lift its 35-year- old ban on polar bear hunting. Many of western Alaska’s bears migrate as much as 1,609 km (1,000 miles) to set up winter dens in the Soviet Union. U.S. and Soviet biologists are working together to find out how many bears migrate in this fashion to ensure that one country does not undermine the conservation efforts of the other.

In search of the bears, the Fish and Wildlife Service has dispatched scientists to some of the most remote regions of the U.S. One expedition earlier this year was based on St. Lawrence Island’s desolate expanse of tundra and mountains rising out of the Bering Sea. In Savoonga, an Eskimo village on the edge of the frozen sea, researchers lived in a bunkhouse with no running water and snow drifts above the windowsills. “We’re stretching everything to the limit in terms of safety to accomplish these research objectives,” says Larry Pank of the Alaska Wildlife Research Center. “We have a real interest in ensuring we have a polar bear population at the same or similar levels 50 or 100 years from now.”

Many of the pilots and mechanics have Vietnam combat experience. “Most of these guys have been shot out of the air a time or two. That’s valuable experience if you have a mechanical problem,” says biologist Garner. Pilot Paul Walters flew low-level reconnaissance in Vietnam. Before taking off to track polar bears, he tells any neophyte on board that if the chopper crashes, survivors should kick out the glass, retrieve the orange survival bag and activate the emergency transmitter.

“Risk goes with the territory,” says biologist Tom McCabe, who lost a third of his arm to shrapnel in Vietnam. If another bear charges while he is examining a bear, he will try to scare it off with Teflon bullets. If that fails, he has a shotgun and a .44 Magnum pistol in a shoulder holster. “The polar bear is the ultimate predator,” he says. “He doesn’t seem to fear anything.” Alaska polar bear expert Jack Lentfer remembers how a bear that was thought to have been tranquilized suddenly reared up and chased him. When the bear was almost upon him, a colleague shot the animal. “It would have chewed me up,” says Lentfer.

“You develop a fatalistic attitude. If something happens, it happens,” says Garner. He has handled 250 polar bears — and 450 grizzly bears. At times he resembles a bear. He stands 6 ft. 2 in., weighs 225-plus lbs., chomps cigars through a wild beard and is girded in layer upon layer of insulated clothing, topped off with a beaver hat. He has little time for worry. Mornings he contacts Anchorage for the latest satellite fixes on his bears. During the day, he tracks and collars the animals. Each is subjected to an exhaustive exam. A tooth is removed to determine age. Vials of blood are drawn for immunological and genetic study. A hole is punched in the ear for an identification tag. A number is tattooed on the bear’s upper lip. A snippet of fur is cut. At night Garner spins bear blood in a centrifuge, readies his darts and cleans the barrels of his shotguns.

Any hardship is offset by the chance to work with mammals as charismatic as they are inaccessible. “This is as good as it gets,” says Garner. “I’m surprised people would pay me to do this.” Ian Stirling of the Canadian Wildlife Service sums up the admiration felt by most of the bears’ scientific followers: “The polar bear is the Arctic incarnate. When you watch one sauntering across the ice and it’s 30 below, he looks as comfortable as someone in a pair of shorts on the beach in Hawaii.”

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