Tours bear witness to Earth's sentinel species

The main man-made attraction on the city tour is the 28-cell holding facility popularly known as the polar bear jail in a Quonset hut on the grounds of a former military base east of town. It is ringed by bear traps, giant tin can-like contraptions, baited with seal-oil-soaked burlap. Conservation personnel armed with cracker shells patrol the town to drive errant bears into unpopulated areas. Three-time offenders get locked up for the season. Others are flown to remote territory and released.

Still, daytime sightings in town are unusual. And there hasn't been a bear-related fatality since 1983, when a resident who had salvaged some meat from the freezer of a fire-damaged restaurant had an unfortunate run-in with one of the sharp-nosed creatures. But there have been many close calls, says Buchanan. A polar bear on a mission is a formidable thing. "I've seen them come through walls," he says.

In the past, "any time a resident had a problem with a bear, there was nothing you could do but deal with it yourself," Olivier says. Consequently, a man-vs.-beast attitude predominated. That changed in 1985 with the town's Polar Bear Alert program, which instituted a 24-hour hotline that summons conservation officials to deal with the animals.

"There's been a shift in mentality," Mayor Michael Spence says. "There's a lot of pride. The bears are important to this community."

And they're important to visitors who have traveled such long distances in hopes of glimpsing them.

Day 2 for the group on Hebert's tundra buggy is overcast and cooler, signaling better viewing conditions. The guide halts the vehicle at the edge of a pond where two bears rear up onto their hind legs, swatting at one another in a playful fight before collapsing onto the tundra.

The sightseers toast their good fortune with Kaluha-laced coffee, as Hebert recaps the day's visual take.

"I'm glad it worked out," he says. "You've seen a mother and a cub. You've seen bears lounging and running. You've seen bears sparring. You've seen it all. Now let's go home."

E-mail jeclark@usatoday.com

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