Alaska is on the front lines of climate change. On the North Slope, that means the polar bear population is shrinking and more females are making their dens onshore rather than on the melting sea ice. The impact is not only to the bears but an industry that shares their territory.

“The first few years I did this, I didn’t find a single den and it was driving me nuts,” said Justin Blank, who works for Fairweather, LLC., the company many of the oil companies on the North Slope hire to look for polar bear dens.

He uses an infrared camera attached to a plane to search for tiny hot spots on some of the coldest places on earth. With a gadget that looks like giant X-Box controls, he’s on the hunt for bright spots on his radar: dens that could be a big problem for oil companies.

“We’d much rather find them before the ice road is built before the project starts because to reroute or stand down the project can be troublesome for them.”

Christopher Putnam works for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s his job to make sure the oil industry is following federal laws.

“So, every November, we get together with all the companies that have authorization from us; we lock them in a room and make then talk to each other.”

The Marine Mammal Act requires all human activity to be a mile away from polar bear dens.

From Utqiavik all the way to Point Thompson, it’s Putnam’s job to track the endangered species about the give birth. Blank uses FLIR imagery, or forward-looking infrared, which can tell the difference of a degree in heat. Bear tracks linger for days. However, finding the dens is a lot harder.

“When you do see something that’s fishy, we’ll fly it over and over and try and get lower or higher or come back a different day when the conditions are a little different,” says Blank.

Sometimes, he says, something that looks like a polar bear will turn out to be a stick or a piece of ice pointed the wrong way.

On average, the crew finds about two dens a year. There have been years they’ve found none. It’s an expensive project for the oil companies, but a price they must pay to protect cubs who are born blind and vulnerable.

Once Fish and Wildlife knows where the bears are, they monitor them. But sometimes, the team misses a den and that’s when things get interesting. In 2011, oil company Eni had just finished an ice road to its new drilling project on Spy Island when a mother bear popped out of the snow with her cub. She’d been down in her den for months as workers built infrastructure to drill for oil. All that work had to stop immediately.

“They didn’t panic and just shut down and tell everyone to run away they shut down operation in a very controlled and organized manner and pulled back away keeping everyone safe,” says Putnam.

It was several weeks before the family moved on and Eni could get back to work, likely costing the company millions. Scientists learned that some polar bears can deal with a lot of disturbance. But they’d rather not risk it because the North Slope may be home to Alaska’s richest oil deposits, but it’s the only home to the shrinking number of Alaska’s polar bears.

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