October 6, 2009 / 8:53 PM / 10 years ago

Alaska oil explorers encountering more polar bears

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Oil companies scouring the coastline of Alaska’s North Slope for new production sites are converging on the same territory as hungry polar bears trying to escape shrinking and thinning sea ice.

Polar bears have not attacked any workers recently, but oil companies are reporting four times as many sightings as they did last decade.

“These bears will walk the coast,” said Craig Perham, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “So if you’ve got an operation right on the coast, you’re going to see bears.”

There were 321 polar bear sightings in and around Alaska oil and gas operations in 2007 and 313 in 2008, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That is about four times the annual average posted for the period of 1994 through 2000.

The last polar bear mauling at a North Slope industrial site occurred in 1993 at a military facility. A bear crashed through a window and severely hurt a contract worker inside.

But close encounters are getting more frequent. Even reality television has documented the phenomenon. On the closing episode of “Ice Road Truckers” on the History Channel, one truck driver was briefly held up from delivering his final load of diesel fuel to Exxon Mobil Corp’s Point Thomson field because wandering polar bears had shut down traffic.

Oil companies probably are recording multiple sightings of individual bears that, instead of making brief stops on land, are extending their stays, Perham said.

“What this appears to be is bears looking for another option because their traditional habitat is not as healthy as it used to be,” said Steve Amstrup of the U.S. Geological Survey. This summer, Arctic sea ice shrank to its third-lowest area on record [ID:nN17442487].

Like roaming bears awaiting freeze-up, denning females — mother bears giving birth and nursing cubs — are settling on land rather than on sea ice, according to a study by Amstrup and others.

Oil-field workers rarely see denning females, the scientists said, but there have been some interactions. A mother bear with cubs forced a late-season shutdown of the ice road to Point Thomson last spring, state officials said.

The Exxon-operated Point Thomson prospect, 55 miles east of Prudhoe Bay, is at a site holding the coastal bluffs that naturally draw polar bears.

“Clearly, Point Thomson is in the midst of polar bears,” Amstrup said.

Other sites attractive to polar bears but targeted for drilling are Oliktok Point west of Prudhoe, where the Italian company ENI is developing its Nikaitchuq prospect, and the offshore Liberty prospect, which BP plans to drill from the edge of land east of Prudhoe Bay.

Meanwhile, oil companies are making more efforts to document sightings, said Marilyn Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

She said last year’s designation of polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act adds new monitoring responsibilities for operators in polar-bear habitat.

Most companies hold letters from the Fish and Wildlife Service authorizing “incidental takes” of polar bears, meaning generally minor, accidental disturbances, said Crockett, who added that companies take great efforts to avoid any potentially dangerous encounters.

“So if you have more companies operating under LOAs (letters of authorization), then reporting sightings are going to increase,” she said.

Editing by Bill Rigby and David Gregorio

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