Safety in Polar Bear Habitat

Polar bears should always be treated with respect and caution. They are large, powerful carnivores that can injure and kill people.

This page focuses on ways to avoid interactions with polar bears while passing safely through the bears’ coastal habitats. The majority of visitors to polar bear habitat are traveling within Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and are generally aware of the risks associated with wildland pursuits. Refuge visitors commonly plan long, remote routes allowing them to test their mettle in extreme wilderness. Yet there are some difficulties no one should willingly face—such as interacting with a polar bear—no matter how energetic and resilient they are.

Because polar bears are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, every visitor has a responsibility to try to avoid encounters with polar bears. Due to changes in sea ice conditions, travelers along the coast of northeast Alaska may now encounter polar bears any month of the year. If you are planning a visit to Arctic Refuge that includes travel along the coast away from structures, use the following practices to minimize your chances of disturbing polar bears; to increase the chances of your safe passage; and to prevent having to kill a polar bear in defense of life.

Be aware of the situation:

  • Encountering polar bears is likely while traveling along the Arctic Refuge coast because polar bears are increasing their coastal use due to arctic warming and loss of sea ice.
  • Change to a bear’s behavior due to the presence of recreational visitors is generally considered disturbance (i.e., harassment) and is prohibited by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
  • Close proximity to bears may lead to the injury or death of people or bears. These outcomes are tragic for people and harmful to polar bear conservation goals.
  • Proper conduct around bears requires sorting through inaccurate information and false notions about bears. Media images of people behaving inappropriately around bears can mislead visitors into thinking risky human actions are safe and have no detrimental impacts on humans and bears. Use practices recommended by human-bear conflict management specialists based on their observations of bear behavior, and learn appropriate practices for your situation. Responsible reactions to bears will vary across bear species, among different areas for the same species, among individual bears at the same location, and even at different times for the same individual bear. 

Before you go:

  • Learn about responsible trip preparation, practices recommended by human-bear conflict management specialists, and characteristics of bear behavior. For visitors coming through Fairbanks, Alaska to visit Arctic Refuge, an educational, polar bear-specific, safety video can be viewed on request at the Refuge office. Arrange a time to view the video before you embark by emailing or calling 800-362-4546.  For more web-based safety guidelines and information about polar bear behavior see our Polar Bear Interaction Guidelines.
  • Plan your route to avoid camping along the coast mid-July through October. Polar bears are most likely to be encountered within 25 miles of the coastline, especially along barrier islands, and they  are increasing their use of the shoreline. It may no longer be possible to avoid polar bear encounters if you plan a coastal trip during these months. (See the next section for tips on locating your camp.)
  • If you must rely on coastal access or egress to accomplish your intended route, make arrangements to minimize the group’s time in coastal areas. Travel on the coast only when absolutely necessary.
  • If you are traveling within Arctic Refuge, increase your distance from Barter Island when traveling the coast to reduce your likelihood of encountering polar bears.
  • If you are committed to using coastal areas, plan a group size that minimizes surprises by allowing for 24 hour bear monitoring, and incorporate camp and travel practices that heighten the group’s situational awareness. (See the next section for tips on increasing awareness).
  • Before your trip, develop and review a group safety plan, and make sure each participant knows how to respond if a bear approaches in a curious, threatened, or predatory manner.
  • Bring, and know how to properly operate and maintain, bear-resistant storage containers and other equipment, such as binoculars, noise makers, and bear pepper spray, that will help you avoid or end interactions. Use caution when relying on use of an electric fence as additional protection. They often fail when placed in the dry, unstable soils found along the coast. Alarm systems can be an effective alternative for such locations.

While on land at or near the coast:

  • Be alert to your surroundings to avoid bears. Never approach, harass, or provoke polar bears. 
  • Avoid attracting bears. Use bear-resistant storage containers for food and trash to prevent bears from becoming food-conditioned. Keep trash and meat away from bears. Handle game meat and store trash so bears can’t get it. Food conditioning is generally dangerous for both people and bears. The bear can become more aggressive in its search for food, and nearby people are more likely to find themselves in conflict with the bear.
  • Avoid camping on bear travel routes such as shorelines, barrier islands, or areas of decreased visibility like fresh water outlets or bluff-edges.
  • Locate overnight camps inland. Based on known patterns of land use by polar bears, locating your camp just a mile or two inland will dramatically decrease the chance your camp will be in the path of a polar bear. Be aware, however, that camping inland or along the coast can result in an encounter with a brown bear. Therefore, take bear awareness and conflict-avoidance precautions regardless of where you camp.
  • Regularly discuss and rehearse among your group how to interpret and respond to polar bear behaviors, such as how to respond if you spot a bear one mile, 100 meters, or 10 meters away; how to respond if you spot a bear while you are traveling versus a bear coming into camp; and what to do if a bear repeatedly comes into camp.
  • Stay within earshot of your group; talk, watch, and listen frequently; be aware of wind direction; and be prepared to respond if your group surprises a bear. Be aware of near-shore ice conditions and the presence of seals, beached carcasses, or other attractants that may influence bear movements.
  • Consider assigning a dedicated observer to watch for bears if your group is active during low light conditions. Consider sleeping in shifts and posting a guard who will alert others to a nearby polar bear when your group rests. Cooler evening temperatures correlate with more active bear activity, and bears may be more apt to move into your area during night-time hours.

If you have an interaction with a polar bear:

When a person and bear are both aware of each other, how you react can either attract or deter a bear’s curiosity. Your group’s goal should be to prevent any interaction from escalating into an incident. Depending on the circumstances, the interaction may require nothing more than your patient and calm attentiveness to the situation, allowing the bear to wander away from your area. Or, your group may simply change its travel path to increase the distance between you and the bear. If the interaction occurs while camping, you may choose to relocate your camp further inland.

When interaction turns into incident:

An incident occurs when you need to take actions toward the bear to respond to a bear’s behavior. Your group’s goal should be to protect human life while minimize the duration and negative consequences of the incident. Resolve the situation non-lethally if possible.

Consider the range of actions you could take. Start with the least aggressive options, such as using noisemakers, grouping together, yelling or clapping, or deploying air horns. Bear pepper spray is effective—but only when used properly at close range and with favorable wind conditions. With wise use of deterrents, your group may be able to de-escalate the incident by keeping bears from making contact with your camp items, and by eventually increasing distance between you and the bear.

Know bear behaviors and patterns so you can assess whether a bear is a threat to human life. For more web-based safety guidelines and information about polar bear behaviors see our Polar Bear Interaction Guidelines.

If defense of life becomes necessary:

  • Defense of life kills are only allowed in self-defense or to save the life of a person in immediate danger. All defense-of-life kills of polar bears must be reported to the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Office of Law Enforcement as immediately as possible and within 48 hours by calling (907) 786-3311. If you are a visitor to Arctic Refuge, also notify the Refuge Manager by calling 800-362-4546. If you must leave a message at either of these numbers, provide your name, contact info, and location so you can be reached to provide additional information about the incident.
  • You'll be required to document the circumstances leading up to, and immediately surrounding, the death of the bear, including documentation of the preventative methods you used to de-escalate the conflict in advance of killing the bear.
  • The shooter may be required to transfer the carcass (including hide and skull) to a law enforcement officer or designated local representative. The shooter is responsible for the carcass once the bear is killed (it can't be abandoned).
  • The shooter may not keep any parts of the animal unless authorized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Related: What to do if you find a dead polar bear