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Tundra Issue: How To Keep Oil Workers From Crossing Paths With Bears


Right now is a busy time of year on Alaska's North Slope. For oil producers, it's travel season, when companies move equipment over the tundra on temporary ice roads. For polar bears, it's mother time. Females are emerging from dens with newborn cubs. And more and more, those activities are happening in the same space. Climate change is bringing more polar bears off the ice and onto land, where they are more likely to cross paths with people and industry. As Alaska Public Media's Rachel Waldholz reports, solving that problem has turned into a business opportunity.

RACHEL WALDHOLZ, BYLINE: On the North Slope, polar bears have the right of way, especially during denning season. Each winter, pregnant females will find a snow drift, dig out a den and settled in to give birth. It used to be that most of those dens were built offshore, out on the frozen Beaufort Sea. But that has changed.

CHRISTOPHER PUTNAM: The pattern of polar bear denning has completely reversed itself within a matter of a few decades.

WALDHOLZ: Christopher Putnam is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says 25 years ago, almost two thirds of polar bears in the region denned on sea ice. Now about two thirds are denning on shore. Scientists don't know exactly why, but Putnam says one thing is clear.

PUTNAM: This is one of the observable impacts of climate change, that - it's not a model. It's not a prediction. We're seeing it happen.

WALDHOLZ: And it's an issue for everyone on the North Slope, especially the oil industry. Federal regulations require all activity to remain at least a mile away through the denning season. So every winter, millions of dollars of work must be routed around any known dens. And that's where Justin Blank and Steve Wackowski come in. Each winter they survey the North Slope by plane.


JUSTIN BLANK: I don't think so.

WALDHOLZ: They're looking for dens - polar bear dens near planned projects. They work for Fair Weather Science, part of a family of companies that have carved out a niche providing unconventional services to the oil and gas industry, from remote medics to bear guards. Their plane is outfitted with an infrared sensor, which can pick up a fraction of a degree difference in temperature, like the body heat from a denning bear percolating up through the snow.

WACKOWSKI: Yeah, that's it. There's tracks there. There's a hole.

BLANK: That's a good maybe, man.

WALDHOLZ: The camera rotates on the bottom of the plane, controlled by a joystick. Back at his Anchorage office, Blank says the whole operation is kind of like playing a videogame.

BLANK: I tell my mom this. You always told me that video games wouldn't help me in life, and you were wrong, mom.

WALDHOLZ: Images from the surveys look like black and white TV. White means hot. And warmer regions, like a road or a river, show up as bright spots. Tracks where a vehicle or even a bear has passed will linger days later. But it takes a trained eye to know what you're looking at. Blank is one of the few people good enough to identify a den.

BLANK: And what you're seeing there is a vent hole. And so the bear's body heat and breath and everything in there's creating this nice, strong signature, allows us to identify where it is.

WALDHOLZ: Each winter, the pair flies six hours a day for a couple of weeks. And most days, they won't find anything. In a big year, Blank says, he'll log maybe eight suspected dens total. It's a lot of time and expense for eight polar bears. But for companies on the slope, it's worth it. If a den turns up in the way of an ice road, it's the ice road that has to move. That's time-consuming and costly. And Putnam of the Fish and Wildlife Service says industry has gotten so good at avoiding bears that although observations are up, interactions are down, which is a good thing because as the ice keeps changing, the bears are spending more and more time on land. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Waldholz in Anchorage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Waldholz