History of Polar Bears as Summer Residents on the St. Matthew Islands, Bering Sea


  • David R. Klein
  • Art Sowls




bears, sealers, revenue cutters, Bering Sea, extirpation, sea ice, climate change


Polar bears were found as summer residents on the St. Matthew Islands in the northern Bering Sea from the time of their discovery in the mid-18th century until the late 19th century, when the last bears were presumably shot by crews from Canadian and American sealers and a U.S. revenue cutter. Historical documents suggest that the killing of the last summer-resident polar bears on the St. Matthew Islands was an indirect consequence of the controversy between the United States and Great Britain over management of the fur seal harvest and the associated pelagic hunting of these seals. Although polar bears have continued to be present near the St. Matthew Islands in winter, when sea ice is present, a metapopulation of summer-resident bears has not reestablished on these islands. In 1972, the State of Alaska considered a proposal to reestablish a summer-resident polar bear population on the St. Matthew Islands, and since 2008, when the United States listed the polar bear as a threatened species, such reestablishment has been suggested as a conservation strategy. However, given the observed changes in local Bering Sea ice conditions in recent decades, the lack of detailed information on the population ecology and habitat dependencies of the historical St. Matthew bears, and the unavailability of an analogous extant metapopulation of polar bears for comparison, it is highly unlikely that reestablishment of summer-resident polar bears on the St. Matthew Islands could be realized.