Polar bear study part of conservation project

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Completing field studies in temperatures 60 degrees below zero requires some special equipment, which is why two BYU graduate students had to adjust their spring wardrobes to accommodate goose-down parkas, coveralls and inch-thick boots.

Master’s candidates Jay Olson and Rusty Robinson, alongside Tom Smith, an associate professor of plant and wildlife sciences at BYU, spend three months of each year conducting research in Alaska’s North Slope region, home to Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve as well as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. While there, they rig infrared cameras to track and document the bears’ comings and goings in hope that the data will help them better understand the bears’ denning behaviors, behaviors that are vital to the cubs’ survival and that may be impacted by the nearby oil industry.

Though inland, most of the North Slope is covered by snow and ice, and the average temperature hovers around 30 to 40 degrees below and occasionally drops as low as negative 60. Together, the trio travels via snow mobile to the polar bear dens they monitor to set up new equipment and perform the maintenance necessary to keep the cameras operating in sub-zero temperatures.

“For us, it’s a big adventure,”  Olson, who returned from his first trip to Alaska this April, said. “It’s just extreme. [If there’s] a slight breeze, all the sudden you can’t see 20 feet in front of you. Except for gravity, you wouldn’t know what side is up or down — it’s all the same.”

Fortunately, according to Olson, the researchers in the area are accommodated by the local oil companies. Living conditions are not only warmer than working conditions, but the group also has access to gym facilities and an all-you-can-eat cafeteria — a perk that, according to Olson, is “good when you have to keep warm, bad when you need to keep skinny.”

But the oil companies are bared from operating within a mile of the polar bear dens, and so the researchers spend plenty of time working and traveling in a climate Robinson said is incomprehensible to those who haven’t experienced it.

“It’s kind of like going to the moon,” Robinson said. “You can describe it to people, but there’s nothing in their world they can relate to it.”

After three years of working the with program, Robinson will be turning his research over to Olson when he completes his master’s at the end of this semester. Robinson said he always knew he wanted to go into wildlife conservation, but never imagined he would be traveling to Alaska to work with polar bears.

“I always imagined that I would do my master’s on deer or elk, something more local,” Robinson said. “No one does this. The people who live and work up there aren’t allowed to do this.”

The project’s research is aimed toward understanding polar bears’ denning behavior, particularly how long the bears spend at the den and how sensitive the cubs are to human disturbances. According to Smith, who has been conducting research on the North Slope polar bears for the last ten years, polar bears used to live and den primarily on sea ice. But as the amount of sea ice has decreased, the number of polar bears forced to move to inland denning sites such as the North Slope region has increased, and so has the likelihood that mother polar bears and humans will collide.

Those interactions may or may not negatively impact the survival rate for polar bear cubs, Smith said.

“The cubs don’t just pop out of the dens and run to the oceans, they stay there anywhere from a few weeks to a month,” Smith said. “Whenever we have a species that is struggling, we want to do everything we can to avoid adding to the problem.”

Once the project determines the exact times when the cubs and their mothers are most likely to inhabit the dens, more accurate regulations for the oil companies on the North Slope can be compiled, protecting the bears while allowing oil companies to continue their operations. But Smith said that everyone can assist the polar bear conservation effort by adopting more a more energy efficient lifestyle.

“The polar bear is a symbol of the arctic,” Olson added. “It’s something that makes that area a wild frontier, and without that, it’s just empty space.”

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