Kaktovik, Politics and Polar Bears


Polar Bear Female, Kaktovik, Alaska

The best place in the United States to view polar bears in the wild is Kaktovik, in the far northeastern corner of Alaska. The polar bears are present in decent numbers because of two human impacts: anthropogenic climate change, which has delayed the arrival of sea ice more each year, keeping the bears ashore; and the Iñupiaq people’s hunting of whales, and placing the whale carcasses on the barrier islands offshore from the village. In normal times, the whale carcasses would not be enough keep the bears around, but as the Arctic warms, these are not normal times.

The village of Kaktovik is an in-holding in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but the bear viewing is in the Refuge proper. So the viewing is regulated by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Two Male Polar Bears at the Boneyard. The barbed wire is to capture fur smiles for genetics work.

WC was lucky enough to make a day trip to Kaktovik a few years ago. The weather was sketchy and the landing was dicey, but we made it in and, guided by Robert Thompson, the dean of Kaktovik polar bear guides, we experienced the thrill and delight of watching the bears from Thompson’s whaling boat for a few hours. Lifetime memories and cherished photos.

Polar Bear Cubs Playing in the Lagoon, Kaktovik, Alaska

Since WC visited Kaktovik, polar bears have been classified as an endangered species under federal law. It’s hard to imagine that the thousand or so people who visit Kaktovik each year to see the bears have much of an impact, but it’s a concern. The bears certainly don’t need any more stress. On the other hand, publicizing the polar bears’ dilemma – something that Robert Thompson does very well – may do more for encouraging people to do something about climate change than any published study.

But that’s not the focus of one of the Trump Administration’s last orders before losing power. David Bernhardt, Trump’s last Secretary of the Interior, issued an order on January 15, 2021, effectively shutting down polar bear viewing in Kaktovik. The Order provides,

Prior to authorizing any future commercial polar bear viewing-related activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and within six months of the date of this Order, the FWS Director shall complete a Polar Bear Commercialization Study to assess the impacts of these activities on the community of Kaktovik, on other affected communities, and on polar bears. The Polar Bear Commercialization Study (Study) shall consider commercial polar bear tourism’s impacts on: existing infrastructure and the availability of air transportation to village residents; Inupiat [sic] cultural practices; polar bear habitat and behavior, including habituation to human activities and its effects on the safety of the community in Kaktovik; economic opportunities for the village of Kaktovik and other affected communities; and such other impacts as the FWS Director deems appropriate.

— Department of the Interior Order No. 3382, dated January 15, 2021 (emphasis added)
Polar Bear Female with first year cub, Kaktovik, Alaska

The Anchorage Daily News reports that the Order was in response to complaints from Kaktovik residents, including complaints that members of the Tribe – in Alaska, each Alaska Native village is a tribe for most legal purposes – were not being given their statutory priority under federal law to have the first shot at on-refuge contracts. So while the government-mandated study is being performed, no one gets to see polar bears, no one gets to make money showing people polar bears and everyone loses.

Sure, technically the order directs the study be completed in 60 days, but those 60 days have elapsed and there’s no sign of a report. And the Order provides by its terms it remains in effect until the analysis of the study is completed and an implementation plan is developed. The Order provides six months to “complete the study.” But that’s pretty late if you’re trying to make plans to visit Kaktovik this fall. On top of the pandemic shutdown across all Alaska Native villages, that would be two years in a row with no revenue.

Male Polar Bear, Kaktovik, Alaska

Was the threat to polars bears, the citizens of Kaktovik and village life so dire that everything had to be shut down? Probably not. Just another goodbye kiss from the Trump Administration? Maybe. Alaska Native politics playing out? WC hopes not. Sad? Certainly.

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