By Zachariah Hughes and Alena Naiden
Anchorage Daily News 

Polar bear kills mother and son in Northwest Alaska village

 

January 25, 2023 | View PDF



A mother and her young son died Jan. 17 in an extremely rare attack by a polar bear in the Northwest Alaska village of Wales, the state’s first fatal polar bear mauling in more than 30 years.

Alaska State Troopers identified the victims as 24-year-old St. Michael resident Summer Myomick and 1-year-old Clyde Ongtowasruk.

Troopers said reports of a polar bear attack came in around 2:30 p.m., with initial accounts describing the bear chasing several people before a Wales resident shot and killed the animal “as it attacked the pair.”

Myomick was walking with her son between the school and the Wales clinic when the bear attacked them, troopers said.

Bering Strait School District officials said the mauling occurred next to the front entrance of Wales’ Kingikmiut School building, which the bear threatened to enter. The principal and other employees rushed people into the school after the animal was spotted, the said district’s chief school administrator, Susan R. Nedza.

“The bear tried to enter with them,” Nedza said, but principal Dawn Hendrickson “slammed the door” to keep it out. “It’s terrifying,” Nedza said. “Not something you’re ever prepared for.”

School officials locked down the building and drew the shades, she said. Eventually, they got the word out to the community that “they needed someone to take care of the bear.”

Authorities had not publicly identified the person who killed the bear.

A state trooper and an Alaska Department of Fish and Game representative reached Wales on Jan. 18 to investigate the attack, after poor weather and “the lack of runway lights in Wales” had kept them from flying to the village earlier, according to state public safety officials. The remains of Myomick and her son were sent to the State Medical Examiner Office for autopsy.

Public safety officials say they won’t be able to provide specifics about the bear involved in the attack until troopers and Fish and Game biologists can examine the animal.

Wales, a predominantly Inupiaq village of fewer than 150 people, is on the far western tip of the Seward Peninsula bordering the Bering Strait, just over 100 miles northwest of Nome. St. Michael, about 200 miles southeast of Wales, is on Norton Sound.

Myomick split time between the two communities, St. Michael city administrator Virginia Washington told the Associated Press.

In the wake of Myomick and her son’s death, the community is grappling with “crippling grief,” Nedza said.

Fatal polar bear attacks are rare in Alaska.

In 1990, a polar bear killed a man in the North Slope village of Point Lay. Biologists later said the animal showed signs of starvation. In 1993, a polar bear burst through a window of an Air Force radar station on the North Slope, seriously mauling a 55-year-old mechanic. He survived.

Polar bears are at the top of the food chain, the largest land carnivores on the planet and are more likely to enter populated communities or attack groups — as seen when solo bears take on dense herds of walrus hauled out on shore, researchers say.

But interactions with people remain exceedingly rare, said Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International, a nonprofit conservation group, in an interview Jan. 18.

“In this case, the bear had chased multiple people, which indicates it’s a bear that’s desperate,” York said.

While there are large areas of open water just south and just north of Wales now — unusual by historical weather standards, but increasingly common in recent years — York said extensive sea ice is covering the Chukchi and the Bering seas.

“Polar bears should be out on ice successfully finding natural prey — seals, small walrus and other animals in that region — so what this particular bear was doing onshore remains to be seen,” he said.

Community members in Wales developed a polar bear patrol program in 2014 but discontinued the patrol later due to lack of funding, according to the Alaska Nannut Co-Management Council, a tribally authorized organization consisting of the 15 Alaska tribes, including Wales, that have traditionally harvested polar bears for subsistence.

Historically, the increase in polar bear attacks has been linked to two things, York said: less sea ice leading to more bears on shore, and more human activity in the Arctic, connected to shipping, natural resource exploration, research, tourism and growing communities.

It’s also possible that fundamental changes under the ice might be impacting food availability for polar bears, sending them farther inland to spend more time on shore — fasting or searching for alternative food sources like unsecured garbage, York said.

“Once they find that caloric reward, then they become very difficult to manage,” he said.

 

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