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Companies Turn to Polar Bear Watchers

April 14, 1986

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Figuring that polar bears can make life a little too tense on drilling rigs, at least one oil company has turned to professional spotters to keep eyes peeled for them and scare them off.

With a hairdryer to keep the windows clear and a small stove to ward off the Arctic cold, Mel Keeney, 42, and Bob Jensen, 35, keep watch for bears from a 4-by-4 shack near a man-made drilling island at Cape Halkett, about 100 miles northwest of Prudhoe Bay.

The two work for Polar Bear Monitoring Services, a small business started several years ago by Fairbanks hunting guide Gary Wallace, Keeney said. He said the firm now employs about a half-dozen monitors.

″We’re just hunters and fishermen and outdoorsmen,″ said Keeney, 42. ″We’ve had close encounters with bears and learned different ways to deal with them.″

There are few specific skills needed for the job, but paramount is the patience and attention span of a stone. A polar bear monitor cannot read or listen to the radio while on his 12-hour shift. Instead, he scans the horizon continually.

Amoco Production Co. pays the monitoring firm $31 an hour to keep the bears away from its rigs.

It decided the precaution was necessary, especially in spring when the bears’ main food supply - the ringed seal - starts popping up near the drilling sites, said Wayne Smith, Amoco’s Alaska manager.

Steven Amstrup of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has studied polar bears in the Alaska arctic since 1980.

He estimates there are about 2,000 polar bears on the ice pack between Point Barrow and Cape Bathurst, Canada, an area as large as about half of the continental United States. That works out to about one bear every 60 miles of sea ice, ″so the chances of bumping into a bear are not all that great,″ he said.

But the animals are curious and totally unafraid, Amstrup said. ″They are clearly the toughest individuals in the valley and don’t have to be concerned about anything else.″

The bears have not learned to fear man, mainly because any bout with a humans usually ends with a dead bear, Amstrup said. He said the animals must be respected because of their strength and size, but that they are not marauding killers.

If the bears and humans to co-exist, they are going to have to learn to share the ice, he said. Already, half a dozen artificial islands have been constructed in polar bear territory in the search for oil.

″Last fall, we caught numerous polar bears within sight of two drill rigs, so we are advancing out to their area,″ Amstrup said. ″And when in their world, human beings must take care to stay out of their way.

″Remember, the things polar bears eat are about the size of people.″

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