Human-Polar Bear Conflicts

Credit: Eric Regehr

People and polar bears have lived adjacent to one another since the time before there were written histories. Negative encounters, while rare, are documented going back to the earliest European expeditions from 1595 (Wilder et al. 2017). Like most large carnivore populations, there is poor understanding of how interaction with humans impacts polar bears and how interactions impact people living and working in polar bear habitat. Ultimate drivers (e.g., climate induced loss of sea ice) will undoubtedly influence the nature, geographic extent, and timing of human–polar bear interactions, but these drivers are difficult to manage. Identifying proximate factors leading to negative interactions (e.g., availability of human food, human waste, and chance encounters on the land) should be a high priority for both research and management, given these factors are easier to manage. As our climate changes, more polar bears are spending longer time onshore, in more regions, and human activities are concurrently increasing in the Arctic. Minimizing and mitigating negative interactions between polar bears and people is likely to be of growing importance- both for the safety of Arctic communities, visiting workers, and tourists as well as the long-term persistence of polar bears.

Globally, expanding human populations, and resultant growing demand for resources, has led to an increasingly pervasive reach of people and infrastructure into wildlife habitats (e.g., Woodroffe et al. 2005). Over the last 100 years, the global human population has essentially quadrupled from 1.9 to 7 billion, and the corresponding anthropogenic footprint—defined as the measure of human impact on the Earth’s ecosystems—has expanded commensurately (Roberts 2011). This has put extraordinary pressure on the integrity of terrestrial and marine ecosystems (e.g., Magnani et al. 2007; Halpern et al. 2008; Doney 2010). The expansion of human activities can impact wildlife by converting natural areas into altered land types (e.g., agricultural, industrial, and urban) and also by altering the behavior of resident wildlife. These changes come with several attendant consequences, including a greater potential for human-wildlife contact.

Interactions between humans and wildlife can have wide-ranging effects, including adversely impacting animal fitness and wildlife populations (Northrup and Wittemyer 2013). Indeed, most human-wildlife interactions are believed to be detrimental to wildlife. Studies on a wide range of taxa show that human-wildlife interactions result in high mortality for many species (e.g., Moore and Seigel 2006 for reptiles; Müllner et al. 2004 for birds; Harrington and Veitch 1992 for mammals). Large carnivores are particularly vulnerable to exposure from human activities, primarily because their extensive home ranges are likely to increasingly overlap with human-occupied areas (e.g., Treves and Karanth 2003). Moreover, high caloric requirements of large carnivores can lead to competition with humans for food, particularly in regions where agriculture or subsistence hunting is common (Dickman 2010). Competitive interaction over access to space or food resources often leads to negative interactions, injury to people and lethal removal of wildlife, which ultimately may constitute a significant threat to the long-term persistence of some species.

Human interactions with wildlife can also impose a variety of economic and social costs to local communities including injury and loss of life, destruction of property, disease transmission to stock, companion animals or humans (Thirgood et al. 2005), and opportunity costs, where people forego economic or lifestyle choices due to impositions placed upon them by the presence of wild animals or conservation areas (Woodroffe et al. 2005). It is estimated that the economic cost to US agricultural producers from property damage and crop and livestock loss by wildlife exceeds $1 billion annually (NASS 2002). In both Asia and Africa, some communities may lose up to 15% of their total agricultural output to elephants (Elephas maximus, Loxodonta spp.) (Lamarque et al. 2009; Madhusudan and Sankaran 2010). In low-income countries including Mozambique and Namibia, over a hundred people are killed annually by crocodiles (Lamarque et al. 2009), while in India elephants kill more than one person every day (Rangarajan et al. 2010). Such losses, while seemingly insignificant at a national level, may give rise to high costs for the affected individuals and communities.

Historically, negative interactions between people and polar bears has been low. Rapid warming across the Arctic is dramatically altering sea ice habitat, including decreased spatial extent and decreased thickness resulting in more polar bears spending longer periods onshore in parts of their range (Rode et al. 2022). Work by Smith et al. (2023) highlighted the growing concern for human-polar bear conflict as a result of one powerful attractant: anthropogenic foods associated with human activities.  Additionally, a recent analysis of polar bear stomach contents across northern Alaska illustrated a more direct risk from human waste. Plastics (28.6%) and other human waste (11.9%) were observed in 42 stomachs sampled, with acute gastritis confirmed in 33.3% (Stimmelmayr et al. 2023).

Nonetheless, there is not a great deal of understanding about the potential impacts of conflict on polar bears and, concomitantly, their impact on people. However, for other bear species, conflict has been demonstrated to be an important consideration in population dynamics. For example, Schwartz et al. (2010) quantified the importance of conflict-related mortality for grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) inside and outside key protected areas. For black bears (U. americanus), Lewis et al. (2015) demonstrated how urban environments and climate-related factors can potentially act as either sources or sinks for bear populations depending upon how human-bear conflict is managed. These examples suggest that human–polar bear interactions that escalate into conflict could pose a challenge to conservation efforts, especially given that the Arctic marine environment is rapidly changing, and the human footprint is growing.

Fortunately, there is a great deal of information around coexistence from colleagues and communities living and working around brown and black bears across North America, Europe, and parts of Asia to guide efforts to mitigate conflict in the Arctic. While educational information needs to be tailored to polar bears, regional laws, and cultures- some tools or protocols may also benefit from focal research regarding efficacy on polar bears. Northern wildlife managers and communities have also developed a suite of tools they are currently using in Arctic conditions and with polar bears specifically- and they vary widely by region. Efforts are ongoing to build capacity and share information range wide through the Range States Conflict Working Group, the PBSG, and other partners.

Further Reading

  • Atwood TC, Duncan C, Patyk KA, Nol P, Rhyan J, McCollum M, McKinney MA, Ramey AM, Cerqueira-Cézar CK, Kwok OCH, Dubey JP, and Hennager S. 2017. Environmental and behavioral changes may influence the exposure of an Arctic apex predator to pathogens and contaminants. Scientific Reports 7: 13193, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-13496-9.
  • Dickman AJ. 2010. Complexities of conflict: the importance of considering social factors for effectively resolving human–wildlife conflict. Animal Conservation 13: 458-466.
  • Doney SC. 2010. The growing human footprint on coastal and open-ocean biogeochemistry. Science 328: 1512-1516.
  • Halpern BS, Walbridge S, Selkoe KA, Kappel CV, Micheli F, D’Agrosa C, Bruno JF, Casey KS, Ebert C, Fox HE, Fujita R, Heinemann D, Lenihan HS, Madin EMP, Perry MT, Selig ER, Spalding M, Steneck R, and Watson R. 2008. A global map of human impact on marine ecosystems. Science 319: 948-952.
  • Harrington FH, and Veitch AM.  1992. Calving success of woodland caribou exposed to low-level jet fighter overflights. Arctic 45: 213-218.
  • Lamarque F, Anderson J, Fergusson R, Lagrange M, Osei-Owusu Y, and Bakker L. 2009. Human-wildlife conflict in Africa: causes, consequences and management strategies. FAO Forestry Paper 157, 98 pp.
  • Lewis DL, Baruch-Mordo S, Wilson KR, Breck SW, Mao JS, and Broderick J. 2015. Foraging ecology of black bears in urban environments: guidance for human–bear conflict mitigation. Ecosphere 6: 141, https://doi.org/10.1890/ES15-00137.1.
  • Madhusudan MD, and Sankaran P.  2010. Seeing the elephant in the room: human-elephant conflict and the ETF report. Economic and Political Weekly 45 (49): 29-31.
  • Magnani F, Mencuccini M, Borghetti M, Berbigier P, Berninger F, Delzon S, Grelle A, Hari P, Jarvis PG, Kolari P, Kowalski AS, Lankreijer H, Law BE, Lindroth A, Loustau D, Manca G, Moncrieff JB, Rayment M, Tedeschi V, Valentini R, and Grace J. 2007. The human footprint in the carbon cycle of temperate and boreal forests. Nature 447: 849-851.
  • Moore MJC, and Seigel RA. 2006. No place to nest or bask: Effects of human disturbance on the nesting and basking habits of yellow-blotched map turtles (Graptemys flavimaculata). Biological Conservation 130: 386-393.
  • Müllner A, Linsenmair KE, and Wikelski M. 2004. Exposure to ecotourism reduces survival and affects stress response in hoatzin chicks (Opisthocomus hoazin). Biological Conservation 118: 549-558.
  • Northrup JM, and Wittemyer G. 2013. Characterising the impacts of emerging energy development on wildlife, with an eye towards mitigation. Ecology Letters 16: 112-125.
  • Rangarajan M, Desai A, Sukumar R, Easa PS, Menon V, Vincent S, Ganguly S, Talukdar BK, Singh B, Mudappa D, Chowdhary S, and Prasad AN. 2010. Gajah. Securing the Future for Elephants in India. The Report of the Elephant Task Force, Ministry of Environment and Forests. New Delhi: Ministry of Environment and Forests, http://www.environmentandsociety.org/node/2697.
  • Rode KD, Douglas DC, Atwood TC, Durner GM, Wilson RR, and Pagano AM. 2022. Observed and forecasted changes in land use by polar bears in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, 1985–2040. Global Ecology and Conservation 40: e02319, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2022.e02319.
  • Schwartz CC, Haroldson MA, and White GC. 2010. Hazards affecting grizzly bear survival in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Journal of Wildlife Management 74: 654-667.
  • Smith TS, Derocher AE, Mazur RL, York G, Owen MA, Obbard M, Richardson ES, and Amstrup SC. 2023. Anthropogenic food: an emerging threat to polar bears. Oryx 57: 425-434.
  • Stimmelmayr R, SimsKayotuk C, Pederson M, Sheffield G, Frantz R, Nayakik J, and Adams B. 2023. Anthropogenic waste ingestion of Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears, Alaska (2010–2020). Ursus 34: e5, https://doi.org/10.2192/URSUS-D-22-00013.1.
  • Thirgood S, Woodroffe R, and Rabinowitz A. 2005. The impact of human-wildlife conflict on human lives and livelihoods. Pp. 13-26 in Woodroffe R, Thirgood S, and Rabinowitz A. (eds). People and Wildlife: Conflict or Coexistence? Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
  • Treves A, and Karanth KU. 2003. Human-carnivore conflict and perspectives on carnivore management worldwide. Conservation Biology 17: 1491-1499.
  • Wilder JM, Vongraven D, Atwood T, Hansen B, Jessen A, Kochneve A, York G, Vallender R, Hedman, D, and Gibbons M. 2017. Polar bear attacks on humans: Implications of a changing climate. Wildlife Society Bulletin 41: 537-547.
  • Woodroffe R, Thirgood S, and Rabinowitz A. (eds). 2005. People and Wildlife: Conflict or Coexistence? Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
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