Anchorage, Alaska: A polar bear chased several residents around a tiny, isolated Alaska Native whaling village, killing a mother and her 1-year-old son in an extremely rare attack before another community member shot and killed the bear, authorities said.

The fatal mauling happened Tuesday near the school in Wales, an isolated Bering Strait coastal community located on the westernmost tip of the North American mainland — about 80 kilometres from Russia — that is no stranger to coexisting with polar bears.

US scientists warned in 2019 that changes in sea ice habitat had coincided with evidence that polar bears’ use of land was increasing and that the chances of a polar bear encounter had increased.Credit:AP

Summer Myomick of Saint Michael and her son, Clyde Ongtowasruk, were killed in the attack, Alaska State Troopers said in a statement.

“It’s very, very sad for Saint Michael right now, and Wales,” said Virginia Washington, the Saint Michael city administrator. She said Myomick split time between the two communities.

“She was a very sweet lady, she was very responsible,” Washington said.

Like many far-flung Alaskan villages, the predominantly Inupiaq community of roughly 150 people organises patrols when the bears are expected in town, from July through early November, which is before the sea ice forms and bears head out on the frozen landscape to hunt seals.

That makes what happened this week almost unheard of because polar bears are normally far out on the ice in the dead of winter and not close to villages, said Geoff York, the senior director of conservation at Polar Bear International, a conversation group. The last fatal polar bear encounter in Alaska was in 1990.

“I would have been walking around the community of Wales probably without any (bear) deterrents because it’s historically the time of year that’s safe,” said York, who has decades of experience studying polar bears. “You don’t expect to run into bears because they’d be out on the sea ice hunting seals and doing their thing.”

Poor weather and a lack of runway lights at the Wales gravel airstrip prevented troopers and wildlife officials from making it to Wales on Tuesday after the polar bear attack.

It’s unclear if this attack was related to climate change, but it’s consistent with what is expected as the Arctic continues to warm at four times the rest of the Earth, changing the ecosystem in ways that are still not fully understood, York said. However, this particular bear is a member of a population that is doing fairly well, said Andrew Derocher, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta and an expert on polar bears.

Alaska scientists at the US Geological Survey in 2019 found changes in sea ice habitat had coincided with evidence that polar bears’ use of land was increasing and that the chances of a polar bear encounter had increased.

Wales is just over 161 kilometres northwest of Nome. The community is accessible by plane and boats, including barges that deliver household goods. Winter trails provide access on snowmobiles to other communities and to subsistence hunting grounds. ATVs are used for non-winter hunting and fishing trips.

Polar bears are the largest bear species, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Males can weigh more than 771 kilograms, but typically weigh 272 to 544 kilograms and reach up to 3 metres in length. Females weigh 181-317.5 kilograms. Polar bears generally feed on seals but also prey on walruses and beluga whales.

Polar bears were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. They are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Both laws prohibit harming the animals without authorisation, unless necessary for human safety.

Polar bears are at the top of the food chain, and see humans as a food source, York said. Fatal polar bear encounters usually involve male bears who are hungry all the time or older bears who are injured or ill and having difficulty getting enough calories, he wrote in a report.

“Both of those bear types are more likely to take risks, like we saw here in Wales,” York said.

Unlike brown or black bears, polar bears do not hibernate in the winter. Only pregnant females enter snow dens, and that’s only for reproduction.

All the other polar bears are out, typically on sea ice where their prey is available year-round.

AP

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