Sunday, January 22, 2023

Polar bear emerged unseen from snowstorm to kill mom, son in remote Alaska village

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WALES, Alaska– Summer Myomick wrapped her baby against the freezing winds whipping off the Bering Sea and stepped outside into a flurry of blowing snow. It was a short walk from the school where she had been visiting relatives to the health clinic, about 150 yards (137 meters) away, but the young mother could hardly see where she was going – or the horror that was approaching.

Myomick, 24, and her son, 1-year-old Clyde Ongtowasruk, were making it just past Kingikmiut School in Wales, Alaska, just below the Arctic Circle, when a polar bear emerged from the impenetrable snow gust and mauled them Tuesday. It was the first deadly polar bear attack in 30 years in Alaska, the only US state where the animals live.

As the attack unfolded, the warden ordered a lockdown and closed the blinds so the children couldn’t see what was happening outside the entrance. Several employees and community members left the secure building and tried to scare the bear away with shovels.

The mauling stopped temporarily, but only when the animal turned on them and they rushed back into the house. Principal Dawn Hendrickson slammed the door in the face of the attacking bear, potentially saving lives, according to Susan Nedza, Bering Strait School District chief administrator.

“The polar bear was chasing them and trying to get in too,” said Nedza, who received frantic calls about the attack in Unalakleet, about 400 kilometers away. “Just appalling. … Something you would never believe you would ever experience.”

With no law enforcement in Wales, a call for help went out to community members as the bear was still outside. A person, who has not been identified, appeared with a gun and killed the bear while continuing to mistreat Myomick and her son.

It appears the mother and toddler had no idea what to expect due to poor visibility, Alaska State Troopers spokesman Austin McDaniel told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The immediate family lived temporarily at the school while they fixed electrical problems in their home, according to a post on a GoFundMe donation page set up to help the family “in the face of unfathomable tragedy and heartbreak.”

“We ask that you respect your privacy at this time of immense sadness,” the post read.

Wales, a whaling community, is the westernmost point on mainland North America – just 80 kilometers from Russia across the Bering Strait – and is home to about 150 people, almost all Inupiat. It is accessible by air and boat, including barges delivering household goods. Winter hiking trails provide snowmobile access to other communities and subsistence hunting grounds.

Kingikmiut School, like other schools in many rural Alaskan Native communities, also functions as a community center. The view from its front, where the attack took place, is an endless expanse of frozen snow and ice stretching to the horizon.

Nedza, the school district superintendent, said she received a call from a distraught Hendrickson just after 2 p.m. Tuesday. She said the students are confined and safe.

The snowstorm that camouflaged the bear and a lack of runway lights on the Wales gravel runway prevented Alaska State Troopers from flying in an officer and a state wildlife official from Nome until Wednesday to investigate.

It is not known what triggered the attack. However, polar bears may view humans as prey, said Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bear International.

Samples of the bear were taken for the state veterinarian, and the bodies of Myomick and her son were flown to Nome for eventual transport to the state medical examiner’s office in Anchorage.

School was canceled on Wednesday to allow students to be with their families and the school district flew advisers to Wales. The school planned tentative openings on Thursday and Friday with no classes but with opportunities for students to meet with advisors, get a meal or play a game, Nedza said.

Alaska scientists from the US Geological Survey found in 2019 that changes in sea ice habitat coincided with evidence that polar bear land use was increasing and the likelihood of polar bear encounters had increased.

Polar bears are the largest species of bear, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Males typically weigh 270 to 540 kilograms (600 to 1,200 pounds) but can reach over 770 kilograms (1,700 pounds) and up to 3 meters (10 ft) in length. Females weigh 400 to 700 pounds (180 to 320 kilograms). Polar bears generally feed on seals, but also eat walruses and beluga whales.

They were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2008 and are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Both laws prohibit harming the animals without a permit, unless it is necessary for human safety.

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Associated Press writer Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.

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