Traditional Knowledge about Polar Bears (<i>Ursus maritimus</i>) in Northwestern Alaska

  • Hannah Voorhees
  • Rhonda Sparks
  • Henry P. Huntington
  • Karyn D. Rode
Keywords: polar bears, Ursus maritimus, Alaska, sea ice, ice habitat, predation, traditional knowledge, Alaska Natives, Arctic warming, climate change, subsistence hunting


Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are an iconic Arctic species, but residents of Arctic coastal communities are among the few who have opportunities to observe their behavior for extended periods of time. Documenting traditional knowledge about polar bears is thus an important research approach, especially in light of recent rapid changes to summer sea ice extent. We interviewed polar bear hunters in seven Alaska Native communities along the coast of the northern Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea. Our study confirmed findings from similar research conducted in the mid-1990s and added information about the responses of polar bears to more recent environmental change. The distribution and local abundance of polar bears have changed over time, though different communities report different patterns. Polar bears arrive from the north later in fall than previously. Despite substantial changes in sea ice and other aspects of polar bear habitat, the animals generally appear to be in good body condition, and cubs continue to be observed regularly. While polar bears continue to feed primarily on seals, they have been observed eating a diverse range of foods, including eggs, greens, fish, berries, and other foods as available. Reduction in harvest levels due to environmental, economic, and social factors is the overriding trend; however, in years when bears are particularly abundant around villages, this pattern is temporarily reversed. Polar bears remain important spiritually and culturally for the indigenous communities of northern and western Alaska.