Biologists drop in -- literally -- on polar bear den

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2001

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Imagine lying prone in the snow, staring into the eyes of a polar bear just a few feet away.

That's where biologist Geoff York found himself last week when he and his boss, Steven Amstrup, both of the U.S. Geological Survey, surprised a polar bear and her two cubs inside a den they believed was empty.

''My only thought was 'This is how it ends,' '' York said Thursday from Anchorage.

Amazingly, all parties involved -- the two polar bear researchers, the helicopter pilot and the bear and her two cubs -- escaped unhurt.

''I think we were very lucky,'' York said. ''Another bear, another day could have been a very different outcome. Someone was looking over us and the bears. Someone was living right.''

Each spring, Amstrup and his researchers fly Alaska's North Slope looking for polar bear dens. The work is part of an ongoing study to learn where polar bears choose to den so humans can avoid those areas.

In most cases, Amstrup and his team find dens by putting radio collars on female bears and then tracking the signal back to the dens. But other times they spot them from the air or use an experimental infrared viewing device to detect a warm bear tucked beneath cold snow.

The incident took place a week ago Wednesday at a den on Pingok Island off Milne Point, about 15 miles west of Prudhoe Bay. Two days earlier, the biologists had entered and measured two nearby empty dens on the same island. They were uncertain about the third den, which was carved into a bluff, but believed it was also vacant.

Still, the biologists approached cautiously. With his handgun drawn, Amstrup probed the edges of the den with a pole while he yelled ''Hey, bear.'' York stood nearby with a shotgun. Amstrup even tossed a piece of driftwood into the den to lure out any bears that might still be there. Still nothing.

The biologists decided it was safe and started to work. Amstrup left his gun inside the helicopter so it wouldn't get wet while exploring the den, York said.

But as soon as Amstrup began to dig, his leg poked through the den's entrance. That's when they heard the bear hiss, and soon Amstrup saw a bear's head at his feet.

''He yelled 'Jeff, bear,' and that was all there was time to say,'' York said.

The bear rushed past Amstrup and popped out of the den, spinning around to face York. Amstrup ran to the helicopter to get his shotgun while York fumbled for his handgun in a holster around his shoulder.

While backing up, York also punched through snow and fell backward. The bear stepped closer, and York started to yell.

''I yelled as loud as I ever have in my life,'' York said. ''It was a primal sound. I yelled 'Steve!' because I wanted to make sure he knew I was down.''

The bear halted, and the helicopter engine started. Then the bear took off running north, leaving her cubs behind.

All this happened within seconds inside a 10-foot radius, York said.

After the encounter, the biologists tried to get the mother bear to go back to her den by flying over her. But she kept heading north, so eventually they had to tranquilize her and the two cubs and reunite them on the ice about two miles from the den. The bears have since been seen several times and appeared to be doing fine, York said.

In retrospect, York said, the bear showed no signs of aggression. Her ears were not pressed backward and instead of appearing angry, she merely seemed confused, York said. ''She was trying to get out and away,'' York said.

After studying polar bears for more than two decades, Amstrup has never had a run-in with a bear like the one last week.

Another longtime polar bear researcher, Ian Stirling with the Canadian Wildlife Service, said that's because Amstrup is ''a very careful scientist'' who takes his moral obligation to protect the safety of the bears very seriously.

But even the most cautious scientists can have accidents.

Stirling said a Canadian polar bear biologist, Frank Brazeau, once tried to enter a den he had not adequately checked in the 1970s. He said Brazeau was standing on the roof when the bear reached through the thin snow and pulled him down inside. He took a bite out of the biologist's heavy parka and then tossed him back out of the den when the helicopter started hovering above. Stirling said an unscathed Brazeau grabbed onto the bottom of the helicopter and escaped.

''A polar bear with cubs tries to avoid anything unnatural (to avoid predation on her cubs), and those biologists were sure something unnatural to her,'' Stirling said. ''Polar bears just don't want to have close contact with humans.''


(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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