Just off the northeast coast of Alaska lies Barter Island in the Beaufort Sea, only about four miles long and two miles wide.
In one of the most remote places in the world sits the island’s main town of Kaktovik, with a population of only around 250 people. At just one square mile in size, this tiny village would easily go unnoticed—except for one thing.
In recent years, more and more polar bears have been taking up residence in and around the town for several months each year due to the influences of global warming on the sea ice the polar bears use to hunt. With the pack ice taking longer to form each year, the bears are forced to stay on the mainland of Barter Island longer and longer as they wait for it to freeze.
Because of this, Kaktovik has become the ‘polar bear capital of America,’ according to survivalist Les Stroud. In the National Geographic documentary series, Alaska’s Grizzly Gauntlet, he ventures to Kaktovik to learn more about the situation and the effects of having the world’s largest carnivore living together with the town’s residents.
As he soon discovers, the impact is far-reaching and the increased proximity between wildlife and humans is creating challenges for both residents and polar bears alike.
Stroud meets with a local tour guide, Robert Thompson, who’s lived in Kaktovik since 1988 and has studied the bears extensively. He explains that when he first moved here, you could see pack ice all summer, but that’s not the case anymore. In some places, more than 150 miles of sea ice in the surrounding area has been lost.
“In the last few decades, the Arctic sea ice has moved farther and farther north during the summer. The bears left behind here can’t catch seals in the open water and have very few food options until the ice returns in the winter,” Stroud says.
The bears that don’t follow the retreating sea ice have a hard few months ahead of them from late summer through the fall, but they’re adapting to these challenges by changing their behavior. Rather than hunting, they’re becoming scavengers, relying on scraps left over by the villagers.
The town is made up predominantly of Inupiat people, Alaska Natives, who maintain their traditional ways of subsistence hunting on whale and caribou. It’s not uncommon for Kaktovik’s residents to age muktuk—whale blubber—outdoors for flavor. But scavenging polar bears have been known to steal the meat being prepared for village feasts in the traditional fashion, causing rising tensions.
Another way the bears are surviving here is off the “bone pile,” where bowhead whale carcasses are dumped once the meat has been removed. The leftovers provide an easy meal and attract bears, sometimes even in large groups.
The bone pile is only 1.5 miles from the town, and there’s usually a reliable stream of bears taking advantage of it while they wait for their preferred habitat of sea ice to form. This has also led to a rapid increase in ecotourism in the area in recent years, with tourists willing to pay hefty prices to get up close to the bears for a rare encounter and the chance at getting a “money shot.” Some villagers worry that polar bears are being exploited and harassed as a result of demanding tourists, further changing their natural behaviors as they become more and more habituated to humans.
Smithsonian Magazine also describes the growing tension between villagers with differing opinions about polar bear ecotourism, saying, “Envy of those few who are lucky or savvy enough to tap this newfound wealth can also sour the atmosphere in a community where members have always depended on each other; for millennia, they’ve survived by sharing and cooperating.”
For such a tiny town, Kaktovik is facing enormous challenges. There’s no question that all of these factors—climate change, the rapid influx of tourists, the bears’ increased interaction with people and the possibility that they’re beginning to form a dependent relationship on humans for food sources—will definitely have consequences.
The difficult part is that only time will reveal what they are, and whether both parties will be able to continue this balancing act.