Polar bears dwell in northern and western Alaska, spending their lives wandering on pack ice (extensive areas of drifting ice) or along the coast. In winter, they wander south on the ice, sometimes even reaching the Kuskokwim River delta, but in the summer they are found out in the Chukchi Sea and Arctic Ocean.
Global warming poses a serious threat to the long-term survival of this remarkable animal, and they are now officially listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. As the polar ice retreats, bears need to swim farther and farther to find ice where they can haul out and rest.
Some polar bears may be able to survive by shifting to a shore-based existence in the summer, but the species faces a bleak future, no matter what Rush Limbaugh spouts.
Visitors to Alaska are highly unlikely to see a polar bear in the wild in the summer, but they can be found in the fall around whale carcasses at both Barrow and Kaktovik; locals provide bear viewing tours in both towns. The Alaska Zoo in Anchorage also has two polar bears.
The best place to see and photograph polar bears in the wild is around Churchill in Manitoba, Canada (www.churchill.ca), where bear tourism is a thriving early winter business.
Learn more about these endangered bears at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website (http://alaska.fws.gov/fisheries/mmm).
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition