Polar bears

A polar bear family gathers at a whale carcass site in northern Alaska.

The North Slope Borough’s Polar Bear Patrol Program was this year’s recipient of Polar Bears International’s annual World Ranger Day Award on Wednesday — in part, due to the fact there have been no polar bear attacks in the borough in over 25 years.

PBI is a conservation group focused on polar bears and the sea ice they depend on. According to a news release, the group presents its award each year on World Ranger Day — July 31 — to “recognize the courage and commitment of front-line heroes working to keep people and polar bears safe across the Arctic.”

“Members of the North Slope Borough’s Polar Bear Patrols do an amazing job under challenging conditions,” said Geoff York, PBI’s senior director of conservation, in a news release. “Thanks in no small part to their efforts, there hasn’t been a polar bear attack in Alaska since 1993.”

The borough’s Polar Bear Patrol is active in six coastal communities in northern Alaska: Kaktovik, Nuiqsut, Point Hope, Point Lay, Utqiagvik and Wainwright.

Susi Miller, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said that polar bears are active in all six areas and that the communities occasionally experience problems, which range from wandering into town to raiding food caches.

According to NASA, Arctic sea ice reaches its minimum each September, and September Arctic sea ice levels are now declining at a rate of 12.8% per decade, relative to the 1981-2010 average. The recurrence of bear incidents has increased as the sea ice has retreated from Alaska’s northern shore. This includes heightened activity of bears feeding on the whale-bone piles in Kaktovik, a town that attracts the highest density of polar bears across the state.

The focus of World Ranger Day, which was established in 2007, has been primarily on the efforts of wildlife rangers in continents like Africa and Asia working to protect species such as rhinos, elephants, tigers and lions. In 2016, PBI decided those in the Arctic also deserve recognition and launched its own annual award.

“Our goal is to draw attention to the important work of these committed people, whether they’re called rangers, patrollers or wildlife conservation officers,” York said in the news release.

PBI rotates the award among the five polar bear nations — Canada, Greenland, Russia, Norway and the U.S. — every year, working with government partners to identify individuals or teams that deserve recognition. Past recipients include the late Vladelin Kavry of Russia’s Umky Patrollers; Churchill, Canada’s Polar Bear Alert team; and Wildlife Officer Erling Madsen of Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland.

When given to an individual, the recipient is given a Canada Goose Arctic Parka and a cash award with a total value of $2,000. When a team is chosen, PBI works with the respective managers and government to decide on the type of recognition, which can include direct support to the program, donation to a regional cause or simple equipment needs. For more information about Polar Bears International, visit bit.ly/1fvbYYa.

Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459 7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors