© Aleksei Volkov / WWF

Growing conflict between people and polar bears

20 April 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Polar Bears: Facing a Changing Arctic. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Crumbling coasts, thawing permafrost, rising sea levels and thinning sea ice: these are the modern realities of the Arctic as it faces the climate crisis. Varvara Semenova explains how they are also increasing conflicts between people and polar bears in northeastern Russia.

For polar bears, the diminishing sea ice is not just a problem—it’s an existential threat. In some areas, the ice now disappears completely in the summer and autumn months, and where it does remain, it is younger and thinner. It melts earlier and freezes later, forcing the ice-dependent top predators to seek new ways to adapt and survive. Unfortunately, some of the bears’ coping strategies are bringing them into conflict with people.

What's going on

Let’s consider the Chukotka region in northeastern Russia. Ryrkaypiy is a rural coastal settlement in the area, just opposite Wrangel Island (often referred to as a polar bear maternity ward). Because of this proximity, polar bears are frequent guests in Ryrkaipiy. Throughout most of the summer and autumn, anywhere from five to 60 polar bears live along Kozhevnikov Cape, within 700 metres of the settlement. On the same cape, a walrus haul-out forms annually. Their carcasses serve as a food source.

Many residents of the village can recall that 20 years ago, there were no walruses or polar bears here—just ice, which did not leave the bay even in the summer months.

These days, a “polar bear patrol” works in the village to prevent the polar bears from getting too close. It keeps them away from garbage cans and responds to calls about bears that may threaten villagers’ safety.

Patrol members say that generally, it’s easier to drive the polar bears away than to explain to fellow villagers why they shouldn’t shoot them. This is especially true when a dozen polar bears have congregated near a village and people are afraid for their families.

“I tell them, ‘Be patient, the polar bears have nowhere to go. Look at the sea, there is no ice there,’” says Tatyana Minenko, head of the village’s bear patrol. “I point out that here, they can at least get enough to eat and wait for the ice to appear.”

Maxim Deminov, another patroller, says he feels that living alongside each other for 15 years, humans and bears have somehow learned to co-exist.

“We have an unspoken agreement with the bears: we don’t bother them on the cape, and they don’t come into the village. If a bear violates this agreement, we drive it off hard with a snowmobile and some pretty painful rubber bullets. Fortunately, in recent years, no people or bears have been hurt.”

In recent years, residents of Billings, another rural settlement in Chukotka, have been on the alert constantly from August to the end of November. Sometimes during those months, polar bears have had to be driven out of Billings every single day—even several times a day. But there is no walrus haul-out nearby, so the animals don’t usually stay for long.

Patrol member Boris Ivashev says he thinks some bears have become less afraid of people.

“I try to scare them off with my ATV, but they look at me and don’t react,” he says. “This year, there was an incident where a polar bear came into a village early in the morning and started going into the entryways of houses and checking the trash cans. People were frightened. We tried to chase him away for a long time, but he clearly didn’t want to leave.”

More conflict as human settlements expand

In western parts of the Russian Arctic, human activity has spread rapidly in recent years. New work camps and military units are being built, and offshore oil and gas exploration and production are underway.

The internet is replete with footage from these places showing polar bears walking from house to house, eating cookies from human hands, or digging through garbage as people cheer them on. These sorts of human behaviours seem to habituate some of the bears so they are no longer afraid of people. This can lead to greater conflict, with the potential for deadly consequences on both sides. The most striking images have come from the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, where dozens of polar bears now live in garbage dumps. The fact that this has happened leaves no question as to why some bears are no longer afraid of people. It is obvious that human behaviours are pushing the bears toward conflict, with the potential for deadly consequences on both sides.

As sea ice continues to shrink, encounters between people and polar bears on land are likely to become more frequent. The outcomes of such encounters will depend largely on the choices people make. We can learn from the patrols in Chukotka and drive bears away from places where people live and work without harming them, or we can keep provoking them into conflicts by attracting them with food. Hopefully, communities and individuals can learn to make the right choices.

VARVARA SEMENOVA is WWF–Russia’s Arctic species coordinator.