Polar bears and seagulls stream toward chunks of whale meat in a Kaktovik meadow in early September. Inupiat villagers generally drag chunks of butchered whale meat from beach to field, where whaling captains separate the flesh for distribution.
Dating to at least the 1970s, polar bears feeding on hunt leftovers "is not a new thing at all," said Polar Bear International's Amstrup. "What is new is that there seem to be larger numbers this year than there have been in the past."
Some scientists have speculated that climate change—and specifically, this year's record retreat of Arctic sea ice—might be responsible for the polar bear spike in Kaktovik. But ecologist John Whiteman said it's too soon to say. "There aren't thorough, quantitative, historical data on the number of bears on shore in Alaska during the summer," Whiteman, of the University of Wyoming, said in an email.
Recent studies, however, suggest that "as ice retreats farther north, more bears will come ashore during summer," he said. "And as more bears wander the coast, it is likely that more will discover the whale remains."
(In depth: "Big oil, wild creatures, and native populations collide" on Alaska's North Slope.)