Polar bears flock to Barrow early this year

Posted: Sunday, September 01, 2002

BARROW (AP) -- Large numbers of polar bears have crowded into the Point Barrow area this month, and scientists are at a loss to explain exactly why.

Bears were showing up regularly in town last week. And tour groups that visit the whale bone piles at Point Barrow, 12 miles north of town, were seeing 40 to 50 bears instead of the usual five or six.

''I don't really know what is going on,'' Craig George of the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, told the Arctic Sounder. ''I haven't seen anything like it in my 20 years in Barrow.''

George said it's not the concentration of bears that's unusual; he's seen that before. Rather, it's the time of year.

''I don't know exactly why now,'' he said. ''What's attracting them?''

Whale bones usually attract them, but the bones at the point are old, from last summer's hunt and older. The fall bowhead hunt hasn't happened yet.

The bears could have been brought in from farther north on ice flows blown to shore by a strong wind storm earlier this month. George guessed that this may have concentrated the bears that were already in the area because of a successful breeding year for ring seals.

Some residents guessed there might actually be more bears. But Scott Schliebe, polar bear project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said there has been no bear population explosion.

All the bears appear to be healthy, some even to the point of being obese.

''This is the time of year when they are really packing on the pounds to be ready for the winter,'' said Arctic Adventures tour guide Joe Shults. ''I think they are just having one more feast at the point before the winter sets in.''

Shults added that most of the females he saw had twin cubs with them. He said he even saw one set of triplets.

Whatever the reason for the congregation, George believes it's just a blip in the routine cycle of nature on the North Slope. But it's just more reason for residents to be extra careful for the next few days or weeks.

''They may not seem like it when you are watching them, they can seem placid,'' he said. ''But these animals can be very dangerous.

''It is usually the bear you don't see that is the most dangerous -- the one that comes up behind you when you are watching another bear.''

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