A polar bear was inadvertently shot to death by a security guard at BP's Endicott field on the North Slope of Alaska when it approached a compound where oil workers live.
The shooting earlier this month marked the first time one of the region's iconic bears -- listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act -- has died during a hazing operation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Bruce Woods said in an interview. The guard tried to "haze," or scare away the bear, but ended up shooting it.
"As far as during authorized hazing operations, there has not been a polar bear mortality, although of course anyone can kill a bear to protect a human life," Woods said.
There are about 3,500 polar bears along the Arctic coast of Alaska, but their survival is increasingly threatened by shrinking sea ice.
Federal wildlife officials have imposed strict restrictions to prevent operations on the North Slope's busy oil fields from harming the bears, who in recent years have been spotted more frequently on shore as their ice habitat diminishes.
Hazing of bears who approach oil operators is permitted, and that apparently is what the security guard, contracted to BP by Purcell Security, tried to do on the evening of Aug. 3 when a female bear was found walking toward a housing area at Endicott, near Prudhoe Bay.
The guard flashed the lights and sounded the horn and siren on his vehicle, but when the bear began acting aggressively instead of retreating, he fired what he thought was a beanbag round, intended to strike the bear's hindquarters and scare it away.
The bear did run off but was spotted in the same area for several days afterward. "It just hung around," BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said.
"People believed, I think, by the bear's demeanor and activity, just that fact that it wasn't going anywhere, that it might be injured or somehow in distress. We communicated that to Fish and Wildlife: 'This is what the bear is doing, what do you want us to do?' We followed their directions: 'Monitor the bear, keep people away,'" he said.
Several days later, the bear swam to a nearby island and by Aug. 15 had stopped moving -- dead, it turned out. It was then determined that the security guard had fired not a beanbag round but a "cracker shell," a loud explosive intended to be fired near but not at the bear to scare it away.
The bear is believed to have died of internal injuries as a result of the cracker shell penetrating her side, but a full investigation by the Fish and Wildlife Service is underway.
"I can tell you that apparently a bear was shot and injured as part of a hazing operation, and exactly what the details are of what happened are what we are not talking about yet," Woods said.
Rinehart said the company already has taken steps to require clear packaging and labeling of hazing rounds to avoid future confusion.
"We don't think we've ever had this happen on our lease before, and we're going to do everything we can to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.
Polar bears are a common sight on the North Slope. BP had 541 sightings of the animals between 2005 and 2010 -- many of the sightings might have involved the same bear -- and employees used hazing to drive them away from oil operations in 159 cases.
Woods said the federal permits issued to oil operators under the Endangered Species Act authorize only "non-lethal disturbance" of the animals.