Polar Bear Attacks Reminder of Warming World

By Doug Struck
Globe Correspondent

Some years ago, I was hitching a ride on the back of a snowmobile in the Arctic town ofPangnirtung, on Baffin Island, when I remarked that the seat was badly slashed.

Oh that, said Noah Metuq, the Inuit hunter who was taking me on a seal hunt. “Polar bear,” he explained. “He missed me.”

Metuq was a man of few words.

What brings this to mind was the report this week of a polar bear attack on two people inChurchill, Manitoba. A woman stepped out of her house early in the morning after Halloween and a young polar bear mauled her and a neighbor who rushed to help. The bear finally retreated when another neighbor drove at it with a pickup truck, according to a report in the Canadian Press.

Churchill is a renowned crossing point for polar bears returning from summers on the tundra to their winter seal hunts on the ice of the Hudson Bay. Bears regularly stroll through town, and attacks are not unknown: this was the second in two months in Churchill.

What struck me were the scientists quoted after the attack, who suggested that bear attacks will be more common as climate change reduces their natural hunting grounds.

Noah Metuq and the Inuit who share the frozen north with the big animals knew that when I visited him seven years ago. Except for Churchill, a town planted right on a polar bear highway, bears and humans generally keep a wary distance from each other.

But Metuq and other hunters on Baffin Island had noticed an increase in the aggressiveness of polar bears, resulting in a number of close calls, retold often, by the men of Pangnirtung. They said the bears were more dangerous as winter neared. Like the human hunters, the bears depend on a freeze-over in the sea ice, so they can stalk the seals that come near the edge of the floes.

But the Arctic is warming at a far faster pace than the temperate zones of the world. The ice is taking longer to freeze over, and it is increasingly too thin to support bears — or snowmobiles — in many places. A bear frustrated by dinner delayed is an unhappy bear, and the soft, furry two-legged creatures begin to look more interesting, despite their noisy machines and guns.

The Inuit take precautions. When they are out on the hunt, they scan the jagged ridges and hummocks for lurking bears, which are stunningly fast on the attack. Often, as the Inuit stand and wait, rifle ready, at the breathing hole for a seal that will feed several families that night, they see huge paw prints. Bears hunt at the same holes.

It is a reminder that humans share the world with these large creatures. And as it warms, the world is changing for both.