These Polar Bear Interaction Guidelines were developed to help ensure that human activities in polar bear habitat are conducted in a manner that minimizes conflicts with polar bears. Polar bears are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), and were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2008. The MMPA and ESA both prohibit the “take” of polar bears without authorization, unless it is necessary for human safety. Take includes disturbance to polar bears, as well as injuring and killing polar bears.
Polar bears use sea ice, marine waters and terrestrial areas in northern and northwestern Alaska for resting, feeding, denning, and seasonal movements. They are most likely to be encountered within 25 miles of the coastline, especially along barrier islands during July-October. Polar bears may also be encountered farther inland, especially females during the denning period (November-April). Be aware that polar bears also occur within human settlements such as villages, camps, and work areas.
Polar bears react differently to human presence, depending on a variety of biological and environmental factors, as well as their previous experience with humans. Hungry (skinny) bears can be particularly dangerous. The general strategy for minimizing human-bear conflicts is to: 1) be prepared; 2) avoid encounters; and 3) know how to respond if an encounter occurs.
Unusual sightings or questions/concerns can be referred to Polar Bear Program staff at the Marine Mammals Management Office at (800) 362-5148; or to the Fairbanks Fish & Wildlife Conservation Office at (907) 456-0499.
When traveling on land or sea ice:
- Be prepared. Have a human-bear safety plan that includes information on how to avoid and respond to bear encounters. Carry deterrents, and practice/know how to use them.
- Avoid surprise encounters. Travel in groups, make noise, and be vigilant - especially on barrier islands, in river drainages, along bluff habitat or ice leads/polynyas, near whale or other marine mammal carcasses, or in the vicinity of fresh tracks.
- Minimize attractants. Avoid carrying strongly scented attractants such as meat or fish while away from camp, or place them in air-tight containers to minimize odor transmission.
- Avoid disturbing denning bears. Between November and April, special care is needed to avoid disturbance of denning bears. If activities are to take place during that time period, MMM should be contacted to determine if any additional mitigation is required. In general, activities are not permitted within one mile of known den sites.
- Avoid high use areas. If possible, avoid camping or lingering in bear high-use areas such as river drainages, coastal bluffs and barrier islands, or along ice leads/polynyas.
- Minimize and prevent access to attractants. Store food, garbage, and other attractants in a manner that minimizes odors and prevents access by bears. Don't allow a bear(s) to receive a food reward in your camp; a rewarded bear is likely to become a problem for you or someone else in the future.
- Use bear-resistant containers to store food, garbage, and other attractants. Containers should be approved and certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee as "bear-resistant”.
- Consider the use of an electric fence and/or alarm system as additional protection.
If a polar bear(s) is encountered:
- Prepare your deterrent(s). Do not run from or approach polar bears. If the bear is unaware of you, allow it to continue what it was doing before you encountered it. Move to safe shelter (e.g. vehicle or building) if available, and wait until it is safe to proceed.
- Group up. If no safe shelter is available, group up with others and stand positioned to allow for safe deployment of deterrents (e.g. firearm, pistol launcher, bear pepper spray) – until the bear leaves.
- Observe bear behavior. Polar bears that stop what they are doing to turn their head or sniff the air in your direction have likely become aware of your presence. These animals may exhibit various behaviors: Curious polar bears typically move slowly, stopping frequently to sniff the air, moving their heads around to catch a scent, or holding their heads high with ears forward. They may also stand up. A threatened or agitated polar bear may huff, snap its jaws together, stare at you (or the object of threat) and lower its head to below shoulder level, pressing its ears back and swaying from side to side. A predatory bear may sneak up on an object it considers prey. It may also approach in a straight line at constant speed without exhibiting curious or threatened behavior.
If a polar bear(s) approaches you or your camp:
- Defend your group/camp. Any bear that approaches within range of your deterrents should be deterred. Stand your ground; do not run. Defend your group or camp, increasing the intensity of your deterrence efforts as necessary. Be aware that lethal take of polar bears is permissible if such taking is imminently necessary in defense of human life. Defense of life kills must be reported to the Service within 48 hours.
- The phone number to report is 907-786-3311.
- If bear makes physical contact, fight back. If deterrence/lethal efforts have failed and a polar bear attacks (makes physical contact), do not “play dead”. Fight back using any deterrents available, aiming fists or objects at the bear’s nose and face.
When operating aircraft (including unmanned aircraft systems/drones):
Unless taking off from or landing at an airport/airstrip, pilots should maintain a minimum of 1,500 feet flight altitude and ½ mile horizontal distance from polar bears in the water, and on ice or land. Avoid circling or turning aircraft near polar bears.
When operating watercraft:
Be especially vigilant for swimming bears. If a swimming bear(s) is encountered, allow it to continue unhindered. Never approach, herd, chase, or attempt to lure swimming bear(s). Reduce speed when visibility is low and avoid sudden changes in travel direction.
Read also Safety in Polar Bear Habitat.