ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A polar bear chased several residents around a tiny, isolated Alaska Native whaling village, killing a mother and her 1-year-old son in an extremely rare attack before another community member shot and killed the bear, authorities said.
The fatal mauling, the first in more than 30 years in Alaska, happened Tuesday next to the front entrance of the school in Wales, an isolated Bering Strait coastal community located on the westernmost tip of the North American mainland — about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Russia — that is no stranger to coexisting with polar bears.
School officials rushed people into the building after the polar bear was spotted, Bering Strait School District chief administrator Susan Nedza told the Anchorage Daily News from her office in Unalakleet.
“The bear tried to enter with them,” Nedza said, but Principal Dawn Hendrickson “slammed the door” to keep it out.
“It’s terrifying. Not something you’re ever prepared for,” said Nedza, who didn’t return messages to The Associated Press on Wednesday.
School district officials pulled the shades in the school and locked down the building. They eventually got word out that they needed someone to “take care of the bear.”
Summer Myomick of Saint Michael and her son, Clyde Ongtowasruk, were killed in the attack, Alaska State Troopers said in a statement.
Myomick’s parents declined interviews with The Associated Press when reached Wednesday at their home.
“It’s very, very sad for Saint Michael right now, and Wales,” said Virginia Washington, the Saint Michael city administrator. She said Myomick split time between the two communities.
“She was a very sweet lady. She was very responsible,” Washington said.
Like many far-flung Alaska villages, the predominantly Inupiaq community of roughly 150 people in Wales has organized patrols when the bears are expected in town, from roughly December to May, said Geoff York, the senior director of conservation at Polar Bear International. The last fatal polar bear encounter in Alaska was in 1990.
Poor weather and no runway lights at the Wales gravel air strip prevented troopers and wildlife officials from traveling there Tuesday to investigate the attack, but they made it Wednesday. The investigation showed Myomick and Ongtowasruk were walking between the school and a clinic when the bear attacked them, according to a statement from the state troopers.
The remains of the mother and son were transported to the State Medical Examiner’s Office for autopsy, troopers added.
When asked to describe the mood in Wales on Wednesday, Hendrickson, the school principal, called it “traumatic.” Classes were canceled, and counselors were being made available.
She said there have been no announcements for memorials for the two victims yet. “We are still in the beginning phase,” said Hendrickson, who spoke to the AP earlier in the day but didn’t detail the polar bear attempting to breach the school.
It’s unclear if the attack was related to climate change, but it’s consistent with what is expected as the Arctic continues to warm, changing the ecosystem in ways that are still not fully understood, York said.
However, this particular bear was a member of a population that is doing fairly well, said Andrew Derocher, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta and an expert on polar bears.
Alaska scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey in 2019 found changes in sea ice habitat had coincided with evidence that polar bears’ use of land was increasing and that the chances of a polar bear encounter had increased.
Wales is just over 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Nome. The community is accessible by plane and boats, including barges that deliver household goods. Winter trails provide access on snowmobiles to other communities and to subsistence hunting grounds. ATVs are used for non-winter hunting and fishing trips.
Polar bears are the largest bear species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Males can weigh more than 1,700 pounds (771 kilograms), but typically weigh 600 to 1,200 pounds (272–544 kilograms) and reach up to 10 feet (3 meters) in length. Females weigh 400 to 700 pounds (181-318 kilograms). Polar bears generally feed on seals but also prey on walruses and beluga whales.
Polar bears were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. They are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Both laws prohibit harming the animals without authorization, unless necessary for human safety.
Polar bears are at the top of the food chain, and see humans as a food source, York said. Fatal polar bear encounters usually involve young bears, usually males, who are hungry all the time, or older bears who are injured or ill and having difficulty getting enough calories.
“Both of those bear types are more likely to take risks, like we saw here in Wales,” York said.
Unlike brown or black bears, polar bears do not hibernate in the winter. Only pregnant females enter snow dens, and that’s only for reproduction.
All the other polar bears are out, typically on sea ice where their prey is available year-round.
The Alaska Nannut Co-Management Council, which was created to represent “the collective Alaska Native voice in polar bear co-management,” on its website says polar bears near or entering villages represent ongoing safety concerns for communities within polar bear territory.
Joseph Jessup McDermott, executive director of the Alaska Nannut Co-Management Council, which represents tribes that have hunted polar bears for subsistence, said the bear patrol in Wales “is not currently active” because “it essentially lost what funding it had.” The organization has been working with the World Wildlife Fund and other partners to restore the patrol program, McDermott said.
The bear was from a population in the Chukchi Sea that is faring well amid climate change, Derocher said. That means the attack could be the result of a bear lured by attractants such as food or garbage.
Polar bears of the southern Beaufort Sea, east of the Chukchi Sea population, are in worse shape, Derocher said.
In this case, even though there is ice in the Chukchi and northern Bering seas, the quality of that ice is not well known. More importantly, York said they don’t know what’s going on under the ice — or what the availability of seals and other prey is for polar bears.