Polar Bears Lose Fear of Humans as They Overtake a Russian Village

Polar Bears Lose Fear of Humans as They Overtake a Russian Village

I saw my first polar bear while on a muskox hunt in the Northwest Territories in the late 1980s. The Inuits hunted it and brought it into the local village. In those days, American hunters were permitted to import their polar bears into the United States, and from that moment I thought that going after the iconic animal as it foraged on the sea ice would be the ultimate adventure. A few years later when I was at the SCI show to receive the SCI North American Bowhunting Outfitter of the Year Award, the Safari Times reporter interviewing me asked, “If you could hunt anything in the world, what would it be?” Without hesitation, I said, “A polar bear.” At the time, a polar bear was not in my budget, and by the time I finally could justify the price of the hunt in 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had just declared the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This meant U.S. sportsmen were no longer permitted to bring their bears home despite that Inuits still hunt them and regulate polar bear harvests—and take the same number of bears each year regardless of the U.S. import ban.

It is a shame that people like my friend Randy Luth, fellow NRA Life member and NRA President’s Founders Club member of the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum, travel to the Arctic for the adventure of a lifetime but can’t bring their polar bears into the United States. They return home with a few photographs documenting their journey as they recall hunting in one of the most extreme environments in the world, seeing the giant carnivores firsthand—and the sadness of having to leave their beautiful animal behind.

The fact is, contrary to what anti-hunting extremists would have you believe, the polar bear population is sustainable and, in some regions, has increased—even with controlled, legal, regulated hunting. Or maybe because of it. In the case of polar bears and other predators, controlling game species’ populations has an additional benefit to humans who must co-exist with predators: ensuring the animals maintain a fear of humans instead of humans having to live in fear of predators waiting to pounce just outside their door.

A good case in point is the news story Fox News that broke earlier this week regarding polar bears wreaking havoc on an Arctic island in Russia. The headline: “More Than 50 Polar Bears Invade Russian Village Sparking the Government to Declare a State of Emergency.”  The news account covers the fact that “a polar bear invasion is terrorizing Russians on a remote Arctic island with more than 50 beasts besieging one town.”

A state of emergency has been declared on the Soviet nuclear testing archipelago Novaya Zemlya as polar bears enter the front doors of apartment blocks. Residents, many of whom are Russian military personnel, are not permitted to shoot the endangered bears and are “afraid to go outside” or send their children to school, according to the deputy head of local administration, Aleksandr Minayev. At the center of the reports is the town of Belushya Guba, Novaya Zemlya’s main permanent settlement, where 52 polar bears are currently roaming and scavenging for food in local dumps as the 2,000 residents are forced to wait and see what happens next. The Siberian Times emphasized the bears have lost their fear of humans and are not deterred even by the sounds of car horns or shots fired into the air. A team of specialists has been sent to the outpost to talk to residents about other measures that might send away the bears.

“I have been in Novaya Zemlya since 1983, yet I've never seen such a massive polar bear invasion,” said Zigansha Musin, head of the local administration. The bears are “literally chasing people and even entering the entrances of residential buildings.”

According to the Washington Post, Russian authorities ultimately may have to kill some of the polar bears if the animals can’t be deterred. Oral and written complaints continue to come in demanding that public safety be ensured.

Food for Thought: Yet One More Way Hunters Can Play a Wildlife Management Role?

As the stars of the celebrated North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, American hunters recognize hunting’s success as a wildlife management and conservation tool. But does Russia? As that country looks for a solution to the polar bear crisis, it may have an option it has not even considered: using hunters to cull some of the bears. In the case of the United States, this is why the NRA and SCI have long pressed the National Park Service (NPS) to allow hunters to assist with culling ungulate overpopulations on national park lands. NPS typically preferred to pay sharpshooters and federal personnel to do the job hunters would do for free, partly to avoid battling the antis over allowing “hunting” in parks. Thanks to pressure from the NRA Institute for Legislative Action and SCI to use citizen volunteers in culling operations, the NPS conducted a study on two national parks where citizen volunteers were used to reduce elk populations: the Rocky Mountain National Park in my home state of Colorado and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. In March 2016, as shared with by NRA-ILA’s Susan Recce, who played a lead role in pushing for the NPS to use hunters to assist with culling operations, the study report documented that the use of hunter volunteers was legal, cost effective—and a great idea. 

Status of the Polar Bear’s ESA Listing

Sadly, an astronomical amount of hunting and wildlife conservation revenue continues to be lost annually from U.S. sportsmen who sidestep polar bear hunts because they cannot import their bears. In the meantime, Inuits continue to hunt the bears while guiding other hunters worldwide on their own polar bear hunts. While the NRA and other sportsmen-backed groups hold out hope for the species’ ultimate delisting, legislation to resolve this issue is not likely to come about in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, NRA-ILA will continue to look for opportunities to move polar bear legislation forward as well as any other legislation benefiting sportsmen and wildlife species alike.

An article posted on notes “the problem is that too many folks now know the science behind the polar bear ESA listing is weaker than frazzle ice. If someone proposes that polar bears be delisted, the folks who promoted the listing have a problem. A delisting assessment would bring the new ESA rules into play, including the one that says the delisting process should be given the same scrutiny as the listing process.”

More Food for Thought: Why We Hunt Predators in the First Place

As Ron Spomer wrote in the article “Why We Hunt Big Predators,”  “Rural folks in Africa are rarely happy to live cheek-to-jowl with lions, leopards and other potential man-eaters. The same goes for Northwoods residents and bears where hunting pressure keeps predators cautious to minimize human encounters. While large predators kill few humans each year, when you or a loved one are one of them, that’s a big deal.” While we humans should not condemn predators for doing what they do, don’t we have a responsibility to reduce their numbers amid escalating encounters with humans and in places where they threaten to wipe out local prey populations? As a general rule, if hunters are willing to pay to manage wildlife species—funds that are used to fight back against poaching, improve wildlife habitat and protect populations of other species—including the predators being hunted—why not manage for that outcome?

If we don’t plan ahead and keep all wildlife populations in balance, how can we realistically expect to enjoy the world’s wildlife into the future?