This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakaimagazine.com.
Deep twilight settles in over Wales, Alaska. As the last traces of sunset orange give way to blue black on the western horizon, the icy Bering Strait and Siberia beyond are invisible in the night. All is quiet in the tiny village—a cluster of buildings with a single string of streetlights, tucked between frozen hills and frozen sea.
Roughly 650 feet from the beach, a large white shape moves in the shadows between the post office and a snowdrift as high as a house. Suddenly, a snowmobile appears out of the darkness, headlight beaming, heading straight toward the lumbering shape. The two men riding the machine shout and wave their arms in the air, swerving back and forth.
Into the light steps a polar bear. The driver revs his engine, and his passenger yips and hollers, standing tall, waving a high-powered flashlight at the bear. The bear huffs, and for a moment looks like it might hold its ground. Instead, it drops to all fours, turns, and runs around the building. The men on the snowmobile follow, still kicking up all the noise they can muster, driving the bear toward the ocean. In the distance, chained dogs start to bark in chorus.
Once, twice, three times the bear stops and turns to face its pursuers. But each time, the men keep coming, their breath steaming in the icy air.
The pursuit stops abruptly when the bear and the men reach the beach. Then the “bear” straightens up, adjusts his bulky white jacket, and climbs into a trailer hitched to the snowmobile. The Kingikmiut Nanuuq Patrol has just completed its first practice run of the season.
The two-year-old Kingikmiut Nanuuq Patrol—or the Wales polar bear patrol—resulted from an innovative partnership between the tribal council in Wales, United States government wildlife officials, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). (Nanuuq is the Inupiaq word for polar bear. Kingikmiut, the Inupiaq name for the people of Wales, means “people from the high place.”) The patrollers are trained to haze visiting polar bears out of town using an escalating range of non-lethal deterrents, from flashlights and air horns, to a shotgun loaded with beanbag rounds or rubber bullets. They carry a second shotgun loaded with live ammunition as a weapon of last resort, but ideally the operation delivers a warning for the bears, not a death warrant. The goals are simple: to keep people safe from bears, while also keeping bears safe from people.
Clyde Oxereok is one of the founding members of the polar bear patrol in Wales, Alaska, which seeks to keep bears away from humans while ensuring the survival of the embattled species. (Photo by Elisabeth Kruger/WWF US)
Wales, home to roughly 150 people, sits on the westernmost point of mainland North America, just 50-odd miles from Siberia’s Chukchi Peninsula. (It is one of a handful of places