Monday, October 26, 2009

This is the end....

Well, I think the blog is nearing its end. We didn't manage to catch the last bear, I guess it will have to wait until another less foggy day comes along. All in all it was a successful field season, we managed to catch all of the bears we were after except two. Of those two, one of them didn't have any type of tracking device (try and find a white bear in a white world without any help).

It was quite a task getting everything packed up. Our field gear totaled around 600 lbs and took up three pallets. Shipping all that stuff back to Laramie is no small feat. Normal shipping carriers like Fed Ex and UPS don't exist in Deadhorse. Instead you have to use local carriers like Lynden or Carlile. First the shipment will fly down to Anchorage, then go to Seattle on a boat, and then by UPS ground to Laramie. With any luck, we should see our stuff back in Laramie two weeks from now.

I decided to end with a bunch of random photos from the past month that hadn't made it into previous posts. We were very lucky to have wildlife biologist / professional photographer Mike Lockhart on this trip. He graciously shared several pictures with me for this post. You sure can tell the difference between a professionals' touch and my pathetic attempts at taking pictures. Thanks for sharing Mike! Well, I've had a great time sharing my Alaskan experiences with you all and I hope to see you soon. Peace out.

Bullen Point. The North Slope of Alaska is dotted with old military installations called the DEW (defense early warning) Line. These were used most extensively during the cold war as early indicators of a potential attack from Russia.

Point Lonely. Many of the DEW Line sites have since been decommissioned, like Point Lonely. However, they are good spots for us to have fuel caches for the helicopters. The radar equipment is quite powerful, one of the pilots said it has a range of around 300-400 miles.

When I was up in August we stayed at Oliktok, a DEW Line site that is still functional. Oliktok was really neat because a pair of peregrine falcons was nesting in the radar unit while we were there.

Most of the drilling on the North Slope is onshore, but there are a few offshore rigs like this one.

One thing you get used to around Prudhoe Bay is an extensive system of pipes. These are used for blowing off excess natural gas.

All over the Beaufort Sea coast are these little fishing shacks, some in better repair than others. Occasionally you find a polar bear napping in one of them.

The Prudhoe Bay hotel. Most of the architecture in Deadhorse is composed of modular units. So imagine a hotel made up of double-wide trailer houses all linked together (Dana Petersen photo).

I took this picture on the Dalton highway after a wildlife viewing excursion. What do you think, could it be an Ice Road trucker?

The Trans-Alaskan pipeline runs all the way from Prudhoe Bay down to Valdez Alaska, a distance of 800 miles. The pipeline is 48 inches in diameter and the steel is 0.5 inch thick. It takes oil almost 12 days to get from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.

A better shot of a Musk Ox. This picture was taken about 30 miles out of Deadhorse on the Dalton Highway (photo Mike Lockhart).

A musk ox calf. If the musk ox feel threatened, they circle the wagons with all the adults facing outward and the calves in the middle (Mike Lockhart photo).

Most of the caribou have migrated off the North Slope by now, but there are still a few that linger around all winter (Mike Lockhart photo).

This was really fun to watch. Foxes often employ this technique to capture small mammals. You see them crouch down and go really stiff, kind of like a hunting dog when it goes on point. Then they do this really impressive jump and hopefully pounce down on dinner (Mike Lockhart photo).

Mike Lockhart photo.

Mike Lockhart photo.

This has got to be the world's cutest animal. They're very inquisitive and not at all afraid of humans. This little guy was being very playful with Mike one night (Mike Lockhart photo).

Although the number of birds was certainly much, much lower this trip than in August, we did see a number of interesting birds including this Gyrfalcon. He had just recently killed a Willow Ptarmigan (Mike Lockhart photo).

Speaking of Willow is a whole flock of them. Like arctic foxes, willow ptarmigan also change color for the winter, turning you guessed it......white (Mike Lockhart photo).

The polar bears were obviously really cool. But one day we happened across this pack of wolves, and man, they are just as cool. I think we saw a total of 8 maybe 9 wolves in the pack. They likely came down out of the Brooks Range, but they were really close to the coast, maybe 1 or 2 miles inland from the ocean (Mike Lockhart photo).

Two of the wolves were jet black, which I thought was totally rad. These wolves were the first I've ever seen outside of a zoo, so I was super excited. I don't know, they looked bigger to me running around in their natural habitat (Mike Lockhart photo).

White bear, white landscape. You've probably thought at some point, "How the heck does that work?" Well, if the snow is somewhat fresh we mainly look for tracks. If they're fresh, with a little bit of luck they lead to a bear. Surprisingly, I found it quite a bit harder to see bears in the middle of the month when we had a brief warm spell and most of the snow melted (Mike Lockhart photo).

This picture was taken on Cross Island, about 10 miles offshore. The Inupiat people also hunt whales here, and I thought this was a great photo to really demonstrate how massive these whales are (Mike Lockhart photo).

Cross Island is probably no more than 1-1.5 miles long and maybe 1/2 mile wide. That said, I think there were about 14 or 15 bears on it. Mike got a great shot of these two cubs in a shoving match (Mike Lockhart photo).

Sunset on the Dalton Highway. When I left Deadhorse the sun was coming up at about 10:15am and setting at 4:45pm.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


The storm is finally over! Peak wind speed topped out at 62 mph. The last night of the blizzard we were watching TV and it felt like a miniature earthquake because everything was shaking (couches, chairs, beds, etc) from all the wind. We've made it out two days in a row now, but we still haven't been able to find our last bear. One more day of looking and we'll probably have to call it quits.

I think that one of the most interesting things about this project is all the time you get to spend in helicopters. If you've never ridden in one, it's a real trip. The helicopters that we've used on this project are from a company named Prism based out of Wasilla, AK. Whenever we go out looking for bears, we take two helicopters. One helicopter has a pilot and usually 2-3 people from USGS that actually dart the bear. The other helicopter has a pilot and usually two people (one of whom is me) from the University of Wyoming to take all our measurements. On this particular project we mainly used two different types of helicopters: a Hughes MD-500 and an A Star AS350 (we also used a Robinson 44 one day). When looking for polar bears we usually fly 100-200 ft. off the ground at a speed of 60-80 mph. Usually we can fly for about 2-2.5 hours between refueling, the MD-500 that I rode in most of the time has one 50 gallon tank and an external 30 gallon auxiliary tank. It's really amazing how maneuverable the helicopters are, our pilots can park them into some pretty tiny spaces or more often, zip right in for a close shot at a polar bear.

Aside from our project, Deadhorse is teaming with other helicopters. There are oilcamps and rigs all over the North Slope that either don't have roads going to them, or only have ice roads in the winter time. So helicopters are quite useful for ferrying people and smaller loads of cargo to and fro.
I took this picture about 3:30 in the afternoon walking back from the hotel gym. I think this was like day 2 of the blizzard. Needless to say, visibility was poor.

The wind was finally starting to die down when I took this picture. I'm sitting down in the middle of the path outside our back door.

Every night the pilots put sleeves over the helicopter blades so that ice doesn't build up on them. We had to do a little shoveling to make this helicopter operational.
The day after the blizzard, 2F. I'm standing in the middle of the driveway leading up to our house.

Deadhorse is really dependent on the airport for supplies and getting all the oil workers moved around. Snow removal is obviously critical, and these were some pretty big time machines.
I'd love to know how much that scoop full of snow weighed.

This front-end loader didn't even have a bottom on the scoop, strictly made for pushing snow.

Me all decked out in my flight gear. Two things: you definitely want to wear ear plugs and those helmets are incredibly heavy, especially when you're craning your neck around all day looking for bears.

We filled our helicopters up at fuel caches stored in Kaktovik and Point Lonely. Unfortunately, the fuel tank at Lonely is self service.

This is the MD-500 helicopter from prism. The white tank underneath it is the auxiliary fuel tank, 30 gallons. This helicopter also has emergency floats, for use over open water. I could tell you that Magnum P.I. had a helicopter just like this, but I'm pretty sure that no one other than my dad would get the reference. It looks pretty sweet, and has a price tag to match: $500,000.

This is the ASTAR 350 that the USGS folks flew in. It's quite a little bigger than the MD-500, and worth more too: $2,000,000.

The USGS crew put these flashy antennas on to track bears that have radio collars.

Helicopters aren't very exciting unless you have some pilots around. Pictured on the right is one of the best, Paula.

Joe and Bruce: these two were our pilots for most of October. Occasionally you can trick them into doing the hard jobs, like weighing cubs. Joe plays a mean game of fussball and Bruce is from New Zealand. I think Bruce is the first person I've ever met from New Zealand. The accent from Flight of the Conchords is totally legit (Dana Petersen photo).

Chuck only flew for us one day, but it was totally worth it because we managed to capture our only male polar bear that day. Chuck raises Angus cattle in Montana when he isn't flying around Alaska, so we had some good chats about beef cows.

I think if left to their own devices, helicopters can be kind of a rowdy bunch. It probably helps to have a mechanic like Gaylen around to keep an eye on them.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Winter Weather

Man, we've encountered a stretch of bad weather that just won't quit. Since my last post, we've flown a total of two days! Mostly it's been thick fog keeping us on the ground, but today it's a flat out blizzard. Granted, we captured bears on both days, but it's been slim pickings for awhile now. Luckily we're down to the last bear that we need to capture. Only problem is that she's currently 8 miles out swimming in the ocean. So unless she decides to swim back towards land, our capture season may soon be drawing to a close.

This may be a good time to elaborate a little bit about the ecology of polar bears up here. I think I've already mentioned that most of the polar bears from the Beaufort Sea population (that's the one we're working with) follow the retreating sea ice to the north every summer. However, a small portion of the bears choose to stay on shore during the summer. The drawback to staying on shore is that polar bears are typically very poor hunters on land. The bears are quite reliant on the sea ice as a platform from which they can hunt seals. At this time of year, the sea ice is just starting to form on the coastlines, called "land fast" ice. At the same time, the polar ice pack is starting to creep down from the north and will eventually connect with the land fast ice. So the polar bears that we've been capturing on land are starting to think about returning to the ice. In fact, I've seen several seals hauled out on ice already. Get set for lunch, right?

Well, not for all bears. The pregnant females will stay on land and hunker down in a den for the winter, giving birth to their cubs sometime in January / February. Unlike brown bears and black bears that hibernate in a den all winter de facto, the only polar bears that bed down for winter are these pregnant females. The rest of the population will stay out on or near the sea ice. We've already started to see bears digging prospective den sites, usually in pretty heinous snow banks. Today's blizzard aside, den sites have been pretty hard to come by due to the warm weather we've had lately. We even saw one female trying to den in the Brooks Range, 30 or 40 miles from the coast where there is more snow in the mountains (polar bears are usually found right next to the ocean).

Armed with your new found information on polar bears, do you think our last bear is pregnant? That is the million dollar question for our group right now.

I've seen all kinds of different ice up here. This is a photo of ice just starting to form up next to the shore, "shore fast" ice. The ocean has a slightly lower freezing point (29F) compared to fresh water (32F). This is due to the much higher salt content of ocean water, the same reason you put salt on an icy road.

Often the ice is composed of a multitude of appropriately named pancakes. Pancake ice is formed when the top layer freezes, but wave action breaks it up into these pieces. After bouncing off each other for awhile, the edges of the pancakes get turned up and rounded.

Occasionally you encounter really smooth ice, perfect for sliding on (Dana Petersen photo).

Here are a couple of the seals we saw the other day. They keep breathing holes open in the ice, and seconds after we flew over, they dove down the holes. Polar bears often hunt the seals by ambushing them when they pop out of their breathing holes (Dana Petersen photo).

We've certainly been seeing quite a few polar bears when the weather permits flying. These polar bears were out on a barrier island that was surrounded by fresh ice.

Any idea what this is? It's a potential denning site for a pregnant female. They excavate all over the place, usually in big snowdrifts like this, looking for the perfect spot to pop out a few puff balls (Dana Petersen photo).

It almost looks like this polar bear smiled for the picture. I like to think she was just really stoked about contributing to science.

Despite my best efforts to keep my birthday under wraps, somehow word leaked out. I'm glad it did, the cake was quite tasty. My favorite part was that they put an emergency strobe light on it for a candle. Thanks polar bear crew!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Big Bears

The latest news from Deadhorse is that it's been warm (-ish, for Deadhorse in October this means high temperatures in the mid-30s) and we've been catching plenty of bears. Not just any old bears mind you, but big bears. Several days ago we captured a female bear that weighed 820lbs, pretty dang big for a female. The fat layer over her rump was almost 6 inches deep. Take out a tape measure and imagine what it would feel like to have your body covered in that! We also captured a male two days ago that weighed over 1000 lbs. I'm not going to lie, it's a little weird being next to a carnivore that big. Our team takes several measurements of all the bears we catch including weight, length, fat biopsy, muscle biopsy, breath sample, hair sample, even a fecal sample. We're cumulatively using all this information to see if there are any differences in the health / body condition of bears that follow the sea ice in the summer compared to the bears that stay on land. So, here are the latest photos.

Early morning light over the arctic ocean. Ice is starting to form up on parts of the shore, but the main ice pack is still quite a ways out.

Here's the big male we caught two days ago. He weighed 1020lbs. The pictures don't really do it justice, but I can assure you this thing was massive.

I think one of the coolest things about polar bears is the size of their paws. This is a picture of the front right paw of the big male. I'm told that polar bears can walk on thinner ice than a human can, in part because these large paws distribute weight over a greater surface area.
I just realized tonight that I don't have a current photo of breath sampling. So this one is from August. The nose cone is attached to a device with two one-way valves. The bears breathes in air from the environment and exhales into the bag. Believe it or not, that little valve costs $700. From the bears breath we can calculate if it's metabolizing primarily carbohydrates, fats, or proteins. Students from Mrs. Banes class take note: I'll show you how to do this on yourself when I get back. Since you won't be anesthetized (well I hope we don't need to), we can even accurately calculate how many calories per hour you're burning.
The tape measure is a little hard to see, but here we're measuring how long the bear is from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail.
Ever wonder how you weigh a 1000 lb bear? A collapsible tripod and a pulley system. As long as the ground isn't too soft, you're golden.
Sunset photo in Deadhorse, airport in the background. Currently the sun comes up at 9:02 am and sets at 6:19 pm. We're losing about 10 minutes of daylight each day right now. By the end of October Deadhorse will be losing 15 minutes of daylight each day. Enjoy sunlight while you can good people of Alaska.