Bear Safety for North Slope Workers
Training is key—for people and bears
A polar bear on the tundra amongst weather monitoring equipment near the trans-Alaska oil pipeline on the North Slope.
Photo courtesy of Fairweather, LLC
Workers on the North Slope deal with a number of hazards such as the region’s remoteness and its notoriously poor weather. They also have to be on the lookout for wildlife, including grizzly and polar bears.
Bears Like Free Food
In the 1980s it was not uncommon to see bears nosing around oil facilities, drawn by open dumpsters and landfills and unsecured food waste. Some workers even fed the bears. Bears, conditioned to human food sources, lost their fear of people and became a threat, says Justin Blank, senior environmental scientist at Fairweather LLC.
In Deadhorse, a fence was put up around the landfill in the early 1990s and the bears were shut out.
“When they put the gate up, all those bears that were getting a free meal became real problems for the camps around there,” Blank says. “Once a bear gets trained, gets food-conditioned, it’s hard for them to switch back to their natural diet, back to hunting. They’ll become problem bears nine times out of ten.”
Officials in Deadhorse killed ten bears that had broken into buildings, according to a bear fact sheet published by ConocoPhillips. More than a dozen other bears were killed in defense of life and property.
But in the early 1990s, the landfills were fenced off and stricter controls over food implemented, including the installation of bear-proof dumpsters at remote sites. Oilfield operators increased education and training efforts for workers and a Slope-wide Wildlife Avoidance and Interaction Plan was implemented.
A polar bear walks along a gravel road on the North Slope.
Photo courtesy of Fairweather, LLC
Working in Bear Habit
Much of the development on the North Slope is in grizzly bear habitat along rivers and wetlands and polar bear habitat near the ocean. It’s rare for polar bears to go more than fifty miles inland, Blank says. He estimates there are about 2,000 polar bears in Alaska. And while grizzlies were rarely seen on the North Slope before the oilfields were constructed, there are an estimated 1 to 2 bears per one hundred square miles near the coast, according to an Alaska Department of Fish and Game study, with higher densities near the Brooks Range.
Alyeska Pipeline Service Company spokesman Bill Bailey says there have been no sightings of polar bears at Pump Station 1 for nearly two decades. However, grizzly bears are occasionally seen nearby and all personnel are trained on bear safety.
North Slope security personnel regularly patrol the road and marine systems in and around Prudhoe Bay, and TAPS security regularly patrols the pipeline right-of-way, Bailey says. The perimeter around Pump Station 1 is fenced.
“There are a variety of potential wildlife threats to safety [on the North Slope], just like there are in many places in Alaska,” Bailey says. “TAPS covers 800 miles through the Alaska wilderness, so the potential for human/wildlife interactions is present every day in nearly every location.”
Prevention is key, he says, and includes proper storage of food and waste, situational awareness in areas where bears and other large mammals may be present, reporting and communicating to managers and workers if wildlife is present, and a strict policy against feeding wildlife.
“All wildlife has the right-of-way, regardless of species,” Bailey says. “TAPS employees yield to animals and discontinue work that may interfere with their natural environment.”
All workers have a standard protocol in bear country, Bailey says.
- Check the area before leaving the safety of a building or vehicle.
- Safely dispose of garbage. Do not leave food outside.
- Move to, or remain in, a safe location if a bear of any kind is seen. Do not approach polar bears for any reason.
- Immediately notify security and the on-site supervisor when a bear is seen and notify other workers.
- Do not take any initiative to deal with a polar bear; only designated security officers and other trained personnel can deal with a polar bear.
- Submit a report to the US Fish and Wildlife Service within 48 hours of an encounter with a polar bear.
Training the People
Today, interactions between bears and workers are few, due to constant vigilance and training. Blank is a bear researcher who also trains people how to respond to a bear in the vicinity.
Fairweather gets an annual permit that allows company personnel to haze animals that pose potential problems. All workers are required to complete wildlife safety classes. Every camp and company has its own procedure on bear safety, Blank says, although most follow a standard procedure.
“They may evacuate the pad or get everyone inside,” he says. “Security will go out there and determine if a bear’s just passing through and they’ll just let it go on its way or if action needs to be taken.”
Ideally, keeping a bear from being attracted is the first step, says Fairweather operations manager Guy Miyagishima.
“First, the food waste bins are all locked so the bears can’t get in them,” he says. “You’re not allowed to put food waste outside at all. It’s beyond bears. There’s fox and ravens.”
Rabies is a serious threat on the North Slope, Bailey says, with foxes being the primary carriers.
“Polar bears could be considered the most visible threat because they have no natural fear of humans,” Bailey says. “But other species of bears are potential threats as well. And large mammals such as moose and caribou can cause vehicle collisions and incidents.”
All security and environmental personnel receive annual training in safe and effective techniques to prevent dangerous wildlife-human encounters. Alyeska is permitted to haze animals that could be a threat to human safety.
Blank is one of the people who trains the bear guards that work on oilfield sites and with scientific field excursions. The daylong classes teach the bear guards how to read a bear’s body language and its usual habits. Guards also must pass a shooting test, and they must have a certificate allowing them to haze bears. Since polar bears are a protected species, that authorization comes from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Grizzly bears are regulated by the state.
“There are two different training criteria that are needed to be met,” Miyagashima says.
A grizzly bear walks through an equipment yard on the North Slope.
Photo courtesy of Fairweather, LLC
Most bear activity occurs in the spring and fall. Blank says it’s difficult to tell if bear encounters have gone up in recent years. But in general, bear encounters are relatively rare.
“As the human footprint expands, statistics will have you coming across more bears,” Blank says.
Miyagashima says they typically see more grizzlies than polar bears around facilities. The grizzlies seem to be more food-conditioned and less wary of human activities than polar bears.
“They never go far away over the ice like the polar bears do, so they’re in the mix all the time,” Blank says.
Wolves, caribou, and fox are also frequently seen on the North Slope. Bailey says Alyeska’s procedure is to leave them alone, even within a fenced area. They are monitored via security cameras. They will usually leave on their own, unless they find a food source. If they don’t leave, facility managers will contact Alaska wildlife personnel to discuss options. For foxes suspected of carrying rabies, security personnel follow Alaska Department of Fish and Game guidelines.
“Taking the life of an animal is the measure of last resort, and only done in protection of human life or property,” Bailey says.
Training the Bears
Once a bear is spotted, the first thing to do is remove the people from the equation, Miyagashima says. That may mean they have to stop work for an hour or even a full day. Then the guard must determine what to do next. Sometimes the bear is just passing through and can be left to go on its way. Sometimes, however, they need a little encouragement to move on.
“You would start with noisemakers or even flashing lights—usually that kind of stuff is enough,” Blank says. “More often than not it’s enough to get the bear to leave. It just annoys them, especially if there’s no attractives out there. Visual cues. Sometimes you can get something big like a loader just kind of moving towards it, and it’ll scare the bear off.”
If that’s not working, or the bear is really focused on coming at the guard, he or she can fire cracker rounds, beanbags, which usually work very well, he says.
Generally, if a bear has been run off successfully, they will tend to try to avoid future human activity, Blank says.
“Once the bear turns and it’s leaving, and it’s doing what you want it to do, you stop whatever your deterrent’s action is,” he says. “As soon as it’s doing what you want it do, you stop and then they’ve learned that lesson.”
In a way, he says, bears can be trained.
“They can be trained that if they come into camp they get a free meal,” Blank says. “Or they can be trained that if they go near the facility they get annoyed and yelled at and can be trained to stay away.”
Julie Stricker is a journalist living near Fairbanks.
This article first appeared in the March 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.