Jim Wilder was a young researcher on the frozen Beaufort Sea when he had his first polar bear encounter.
“We were camped out on the sea ice in front of a maternal den waiting for (mama bear) to come out with her cubs,” he recalls. “A polar bear came up and sniffed the tent, right where my head was, when I was sleeping in the middle of the night and went on its merry way.”
Wilder, now a scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, is a co-author of a study analyzing all recorded cases of polar bear attacks on humans in the five countries where the animals live. He said his story shows why the popular idea of the great Arctic hunters as enthusiastic predators of humans is a myth.
“They’re portrayed as these extremely dangerous man-eating beasts that are looking to attack people, which I think is fairly inaccurate.”
Attacks aren’t that common, he said. Although he acknowledges his list is incomplete and doesn’t include data from Arctic aboriginals, Wilder’s team found only 73 recorded predatory attacks in the 144 years between 1870 and 2014, 20 of them fatal.
The study, published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, also suggests fat ‘n’ happy polar bears don’t hunt humans.
Nearly two-thirds of the attacks were by young adult bears who were starting to starve.
Almost all the attacks were by males, usually young. Of the 11 that weren’t, most were females defending cubs.
Polar bears, said Wilder, avoid risk. Unlike black or grizzly bears, which can eat plants if necessary, polar bears must hunt.
“If they get injured, that impairs their ability to hunt,” he said. “There isn’t a lot of incentive for them to be aggressive — unless times are bad.
“That seems to flip a switch. They seem to turn into a different beast.”
Even yearling polar bears will hunt people if they’re desperate, Wilder said. And more than one-quarter of the attacks in the study occurred in towns.
Both circumstances are almost unheard of in grizzlies or black bears, he said.
The findings suggest that human-bear conflicts are going to get worse as climate change whittles away at the sea ice the bears use as their main hunting platform for the fat-rich seals that form the biggest part of their diet. The report found that nearly nine in 10 attacks occurred between July and December, when the sea ice was at its lowest.