Polar bear sneaks out of snowstorm to kill mother and son in remote Alaskan village

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WALES, Alaska – Summer Mayomick grabbed her baby from the chilly wind blowing off the Bering Sea and stepped outside into the snow. It was a short walk from the school where she was visiting relatives to a medical clinic about 150 yards (137 meters) away, but the young mother could hardly see where she was going – or the terror that was coming.

Mayomik, 24, and her son, Clyde Ongtawasruk, 1, were making their way just outside the front of Kingikmiut School in Wales, Alaska, just below the Arctic Circle, when a polar bear emerged from an impenetrable snow flurry and mauled them Tuesday. It was the first fatal polar bear attack in 30 years in Alaska, the only US state where the animals live.

When the attack began, the principal ordered the curtains closed so that the children could not see what was happening near the entrance. Several employees and members of the public left the safety of the building and tried to scare the bear away with shovels.

The smearing stopped temporarily, but only when the animal turned on them and they charged back. According to Susan Nedz, Bering Strait School District’s chief administrator, Principal Dawn Hendrickson slammed the door in the face of the attacking bear and may have saved a life.

“The polar bear was chasing them and trying to sneak in as well,” said Nedza, who received frantic calls about the attack in Unalaklita, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) away. “Just horrible… Something you never thought you’d ever feel.”

There is no law enforcement in Wales, so while the bear was still on the street, members of the community called for help. The man, who has not been identified, appeared with a gun and killed the bear, which continued to maul Miomik and her son.

The mother and child appeared to have no idea what was happening due to poor visibility, Alaska State Police spokesman Austin McDaniel told The Associated Press on Thursday.

FILE – In this June 15, 2014 photo released by the U.S. Geological Survey, a polar bear dries off after swimming in the Chukchi Sea in Alaska.

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Immediate family members were temporarily living at the school while they dealt with electrical issues at their home, according to a statement on a GoFundMe fundraising site set up to help the family “in the face of unfathomable tragedy and heartbreak.”

“We ask that you respect their privacy during this time of immense grief,” the statement said.

Wales, a whaling community, is the westernmost point of the North American mainland – just 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Russia across the Bering Strait – and is home to about 150 people, almost all Inupiat. It can be reached by plane and boat, including barges that deliver household goods. Winter trails provide snowmobile access to other communities and hunting grounds.

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

Nedza, the school district’s chief administrator, said she got a call from a distraught Hendrickson just after 2 p.m. Tuesday. She said the students were locked in and safe.

A snowstorm that masked the bear, along with no runway lights on the gravel runway in Wales, prevented Alaska State Troopers from flying an officer and a state wildlife officer from Nome to investigate until Wednesday.

It is not known what caused the attack. However, polar bears potentially see humans as prey, said Jeff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bear International.

Samples of the bear were taken for the state veterinarian, and the bodies of Mayomik and her son were taken to Nome for final transport to the State Medical Examiner in Anchorage.

School was canceled Wednesday so students could be with their families, and the school district sent counselors to Wales. The school has planned limited openings Thursday and Friday with no classes but an opportunity for students to meet with counselors, eat or play a game, Nedza said.

US Geological Survey scientists in Alaska found in 2019 that changes in sea ice habitat coincided with evidence that polar bears were using the land more and that polar bear encounters had increased.

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, polar bears are the largest species of bear. Males typically weigh between 600 and 1,200 pounds (270–540 kilograms), but can reach over 1,700 pounds (770 kilograms) and up to 10 feet (3 meters) in length. Females weigh 400 to 700 pounds (180 to 320 kilograms). Polar bears usually eat seals, but also walruses and belugas.

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

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

Copyright © 2023, The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Polar bear sneaks out of snowstorm to kill mother and son in remote Alaskan village

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