The missing polar bears of
St. Matthew Island
By NED ROZELL
June 15, 2010
"We landed on St. Matthew Island early on a cold gray August
morning, and judge our astonishment at finding hundreds of large
polar bears . . . lazily sleeping in grassy hollows, or digging
up grass and other roots, browsing like hogs."
Henry Wood Elliott wrote this account for Harper's Weekly Journal
of Civilization in 1875. Elliott was a U.S. government biologist
studying fur seals on the Pribilof Islands and overseeing the
harvest of their skins, used to make fur coats. In 1874, he made
a trip a few hundred miles north to St. Matthew Island to confirm
the rumor of hundreds of polar bears that spent their summers
on one of the most remote islands in the Bering Sea.
Elliott and his party explored the island for nine days and had
polar bears in sight each minute. He estimated there were at
least 250 bears on the island, and the bears seemed in excellent
condition, though they were molting their winter fur. This summer,
there are no polar bears on St. Matthew Island. None have spent
their summers on the 32-mile long, 4-mile wide island in more
than a century. In the summer of 1899, members of the Harriman
Expedition visited St. Matthew and found - to their great disappointment
- no polar bears.
A drawing of polar
bears on St. Matthew Island that
appeared in Harper's Weekly Journal of Civilization in 1875.
What happened to the polar bears that summered on St. Matthew?
A few scientists have pondered this question in a paper they
will soon submit to a journal. The lead author is Dave Klein,
who visited St. Matthew Island, part of the Alaska Maritime National
Wildlife Refuge, in the 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, and the 2000s.
Klein, a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska's Institute
of Arctic Biology is almost as active in research at 83 as he
was when he was 63 and 43. In the paper he writes that people
wiped out St. Matthew's polar bears.
First came the Russians. Just before the United States purchased
Alaska in 1867, a group of them overwintered on the island in
hopes of harvesting a bounty of skins from polar bears and arctic
"The attempt was apparently a failure due to the severity
of the winter weather and loss of lives of some of the Russians
to scurvy," Klein writes. Also, because seals are the main
winter food source of polar bears, most of the bears probably
were spending winters on the sea ice rather than on the island
with the Russians.
Sailors on U.S. government Revenue Cutters put a dent in the
St. Matthew summer polar bear population in the late 1890s. Patrolling
the Bering Sea to prevent poaching of fur seals, seamen sometimes
went ashore on St. Matthew and killed bears for the thrill of
the hunt. Crewmembers of the cutter Corwin killed 16 polar bears
on St. Matthew sometime in the 1890s. This is the last report
of polar bears on the island, Klein writes.
In his decades of curiosity about the fate of the bears, Klein
chatted with several people who suggested that Yankee whalers
probably killed the last of St. Matthew's polar bears. Recently,
Klein had the chance to visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum
and the New Bedford Public Library in Massachusetts. There, he
read the logbooks from whaling ships that had been near St. Matthew
in the late 1800s.
"Whalers, largely for financial reasons, were preoccupied
with whaling at the edge of the receding ice," Klein writes.
"They could not take the risk of losing time for hunting
and processing whales by putting crew members ashore for recreational
hunting of polar bears."
Klein thinks that the responsibility for the disappearance of
polar bears from the island - which still features paths that
polar bears pressed into the vegetation - probably goes to both
the sailors on the Revenue Cutters and seal-hunting crewmembers
from small Canadian and American schooners.
"Hunting crews were provided with ammunition in excess of
their need for shooting fur seals, and when in proximity to land
they were provided with opportunities to go ashore to hone their
marksmanship on any wildlife they might see," Klein writes.
He concludes that, in a different era, the U.S. government probably
helped remove one of the most unique populations of animals in
the country - polar bears living on a green island.
"It is ironic . . . that the Revenue Cutter Service, precursor
to the U.S. Coast Guard, whose ships had been assigned to the
Bering Sea to protect the northern fur seal from illegal exploitation
also contributed in a major way . . . to the extirpation of
the St. Matthew polar bear population. In fact, the 16 polar
bears shot by the crew of a Revenue Cutter in the 1890s . .
. may well have been the coup de grace."
This column is provided
as a public service by the Geophysical
University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF
Ned Rozell [firstname.lastname@example.org]
is a science writer at the institute.
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