Climate Changes Bears Down on This Remote Russian Settlement

The surge of hungry four-legged visitors to Belushya Guba is part of a larger trend

A polar bear on the pack ice north of Svalbard, Norway (Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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The local government of Belushya Guba in the remote Novaya Zemlya archipelago has been forced to declare a state of emergency. According to the BBC, the military settlement in northern Russia, population 2,000, is being besieged—by polar bears.

It’s no joke: 52 bears have been documented in the area between December 2018 and February 2019, putting the polar-bear-to-human ratio at, roughly, 1:38. The polar bears don’t seem deterred by car horns, dogs or fences or “cases of aggression,” either.

This surge of polar bears in the area is unprecedented, according to local administrative head Zhigansha Musin, who tells state news agency TASS that he’d never witnessed this scale of ursid activity in the 35 years he’s lived in the area. Over the past few months, anywhere from six to ten polar bears can reliably be found living alongside the residents, TASS reports. Videos and photos from a Siberian Times report show the predators making themselves at home, snacking at garbage dumps, even roaming through a hallway.

Their presence has caused legitimate concern among the community. “Parents are afraid to let the children go to school or kindergarten," the region’s governor and local government writes in a statement.

With a worldwide population numbering around 22,000 to 25,000 bears, polar bears are considered vulnerable by the World Wildlife Fund and threatened by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Russian authorities, for their part, recognize polar bears as an endangered species, meaning that shooting at the bears to drive them away would be illegal, the BBC explains. Instead, a team of specialists is being dispatched to the archipelago to get the polar bears to scram. If that measure fails, however, the TASS statement suggests that “a cull will remain the only and forced answer.”

Experts say the culprit behind the sudden influx of these unwelcome ursid is melting sea ice brought on by climate change.

In the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, the polar bears traditionally migrate south to north “where the ice is solid,” polar bear researcher Ilya Mordvintsev tells TASS. But this fall, sea ice on the island was unusually scarce, which made hunting seals difficult. “It’s sort of like, you go to a restaurant and the restaurant is closed,” University of Alberta professor Andrew Derocher tells Motherboard. “So where do you go? You keep wandering until you find one that’s open.”

The open restaurant, in this case, was Belushya Guba, with its availability of edible trash proving an irresistible—if less-nutritious—alternative source of food, Mordvintsev explains.

Belushya Guba isn’t the first town to be beset by polar bears and it most certainly won’t be the last. “As Arctic ice thins, an occurrence linked to the acceleration of climate change, the animals move ashore, ravenous. They scavenge, sometimes coming into contact with human populations,” the Washington Post explains.

One early, alarming instance of polar bear and human clashes occurred in 2007. As The New York Times reported at the time, Russia was forced to temporarily lift the polar bear hunting ban it had introduced in 1956 to address another Arctic island onslaught—“as many polar bears as dogs,” in the words of one resident—and the incident led to the creation of a neighborhood watch program for polar bears.

Biologist Anatoly A. Kochnev proved precient in his observations at that time. “The normal life space for the polar bears is shrinking,” he said.

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