Sharing Alaska’s North Slope with Grizzly Bears

Across our operations, we prioritize safety and work to avoid or minimize the impact of our activities on local biodiversity. In Alaska, this includes keeping bears away from human influences and mitigating danger to humans from potential interactions. For over 15 years, ConocoPhillips has funded grizzly bear research conducted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) on the North Slope of Alaska as an element of these goals. We also support ADFG’s research efforts by providing field access and in-kind support, such as coordinating and furnishing helicopter refueling areas during data collection events.

“The first step in learning how to avoid disrupting wildlife with our operations is learning as much as we can about animal populations and behavioral patterns,” said Robyn McGhee, Supervisor, Sciences and Sustainable Development for ConocoPhillips Alaska. This includes research efforts like the collaring of grizzlies in order to obtain information such as real-time movement data, den locations, and grizzly distribution within the development region. ADFG’s collaring effort also includes installing ear flags on bears, which enables identification and tracking over time.

“This continues to be extremely valuable to ConocoPhillips in Alaska. The real-time bear movement data helps us understand and assess mitigation effectiveness and adjust as needed,” she added. Data from collared bears helps scientists track their movement and ensure that operational activities and ice roads do not interfere with dens during the hibernation season. Each grizzly sighting near our operations is also reported to ADFG. 

Installing fur snares
Installing fur snares

In addition to collaring and tagging bears, ADFG has incorporated the use of fur snares and genetic analysis into research efforts. By analyzing fur samples, ADFG scientists can determine if a bear is eating natural food or a diet that includes human food, which aids in the identification of food-conditioned bears on the North Slope. Familial relations among individual bears and ongoing pedigree analysis can also be tracked using advances in DNA “fingerprinting” to provide increased understanding of the social order of bears in the region.

Working with ADFG, ConocoPhillips implemented a program that included employee education about bear safety and minimizing human-bear interaction, improved management of garbage and human food at work sites and training our security personnel in proper hazing techniques to reduce bear-human encounters. As part of our bear interaction program, regular training is provided to North Slope workers to reduce the potential for human-bear interactions.

Although training and education programs minimized the immediate impacts of development on bears and the potential for human-bear interactions, they didn’t fully eliminate bears accessing scraps of human food or garbage. This is known as “unintentional feeding,” when bears find food waste and containers in landfills, open dumpsters, and improperly stored food at oilfield work sites. ConocoPhillips initiated a Slope-wide program to eliminate these food sources. In collaboration with ADFG, the North Slope Borough, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and other North Slope operators, it was agreed that bear-proof dumpsters would be used. Additionally, the North Slope Borough installed an electrified fence at its regional landfill, which has been effective in excluding bears.  

To eliminate the likelihood of unintentional feeding, we carefully manage waste in our fields by: ·

  • Storing food waste in kitchen trashcans inside buildings or in bear-proof dumpsters.     
  • Disposing of food waste properly, typically in incinerators.   
  • Not storing food and food waste in areas that might be accessible to wildlife (some bears have learned to open doors).
  • Training our workforce about company policies, which are seasonally reinforced at meetings, on signage and through wildlife bulletins.  

“This is all to prevent potentially life-threatening encounters with humans. Oilfield bears that have become food-conditioned and habituated to humans are a serious safety hazard, and it’s typically the bear that will suffer in those circumstances,” said McGhee. “Grizzlies are frequent visitors in our fields and our goal is to ensure that they can safely coexist with the people working in the area.”