From the late 1940s until the early 1970s guides in Alaska took their clients sport hunting for polar bears from airplanes. At times the planes were used to herd the bears towards the waiting hunters.
The hunt and some of its economics were described by U.S. delegations to early (1965-1974) international meetings on the status of the polar bear. I think that much of the following material was prepared by Jack Lentfer, a government bear biologist who attended these meetings.
By way of orientation, the hunts were originating in six or seven small communities from the tip of Alaska's nose, and up along its forehead, and being flown into the Chukchi Sea and the western Beaufort Sea. Little Diomede Island, which you will read about, is right in the Bering Strait.
The aerial sport harvest began sometime in the late 1940s. Before that most hunting had been by Alaska Natives for subsistence and income (Polar Bear Management in Alaska; Jack Lentfer, Third International Conference on Bears, 1974):
Polar bears traditionally have been important in the subsistence economy of Alaskan Eskimos. Meat was used for food and skins for robes and clothing. Skins could be sold and bartered, an exchange that became especially important after commercial whaling began in the 1850s. Polar bears had a cultural significance; Eskimo ceremonies and dances were related to the harvest of bears, and a hunter's prestige was enhanced considerably by his success in taking bears. Alaskan Eskimos most commonly took bears when they came ashore to feed on beach carrion after freezeup in the fall. Hunters used dog teams for transportation, and most often hunted on foot. Occasionally trained dogs were used to bring bears to bay. Bears were also killed throughout the winter and spring, often while Eskimos were seal hunting and whaling. They were taken to a limited extent in the summer when walrus and bearded seals were hunted along the edge of the ice pack from boats. Harvests were greatest in years when heavy ice drifted close to shore early in the fall. The estimated annual harvest from 1925-53, based on records of skins shipped from Alaska, averaged 120 bears...
When the aerial sport hunt began, Alaska was a territory and the Federal government managed polar bears. Alaska took over management in 1960, following statehood. Here's an account of the hunt from 1965 (Proceedings of the First International Scientific Meeting on the Polar Bear). I've rearranged the order of the text somewhat:
In the late 1940's the hunting of polar bear by use of aircraft began. At first only one or two guides engaged in this type of hunting, but gradually more and more guides acquired the necessary knowhow and offered polar bear hunts to sportsmen and trophy hunters....
The hunt worked like this:
Aerial hunting as developed by Alaskan guides and bush pilots allows sportsmen to bag trophy animals with a relatively small expenditure of time. This hunting method characteristically involves the use of two light, ski-equipped aircraft working together for reasons of safety. On long flights, as from Kotzebue to beyond the International Dateline, one aircraft will simply fly cover for the other and perhaps carry extra gasoline. Commonly, however, both aircraft carry gasoline reserves and each may hold a guide and a hunter. The guides typically look for bear tracks on the snow and then judge whether the animal that made the track is of trophy size. If so, and if snow and light conditions are good, the track is followed until the bear is found. This may be within a few miles or in excess of 50 miles. One aircraft will then land as close to the bear as possible and the hunter will stalk it. If an ordinary stalk is impossible, it is commonly reported to us that the cover plane will herd or attempt to herd the bear back within range of the hunter. While many conservationists and sportsmen condemn this type of hunting as not being sportsmanlike or ethical, still some of the most prominent sportsmen in the country have done it and will defend it. Mail received by the Department of Fish and Game indicates a very strong public feeling against aerial hunting, and there is no question that those engaged in it are strongly motivated by either the monetary returns (guides) or the ease with which a rare trophy may be obtained (trophy hunters)...
The major bases of aerial hunting operations include the villages of Teller on the Seward Peninsula, Kotzebue, Point Hope, and Barrow. Records compiled during the past 5 years based on guide and hunter reports indicate that the average distance from shore bases at which bears are taken is about 85 miles. Hunters operating from Kotzebue fly the longest distances (average 130 miles), and those from Barrow fly the shortest distances (average 55 miles). Of course, native hunters on foot or with dog teams seldom get more than a few miles off shore.
Here's a neat set of slides taken by a bear researcher this past spring. This women was working out of Point Hope, one of the staging areas for the old aerial hunts, and researching Chukchi Sea bears. Lots of shots of Point Hope and the Chukchi Sea from the air, polar bears on the Chukchi from the air, and close ups of polar bears and the Chukchi Sea ice. Some video. This is what the hunters would have seen 40-50 years ago: Polar Bear Captures 2008.
This business of landing a fixed wing plane on the ice must have been dangerous at times. Continuing this side bar, here's a short piece of text by Richard Nelson. Nelson was an ethnologist who lived in the Eskimo community of Point Hope in the mid-sixties. His book Shadow of the Hunter is a collection of ethnologically accurate, but fictionalized, hunting stories. Shadow is a work of fiction, but based on reality. I assume he got something like this story from an Eskimo informant:
Years before, at a place not far from Ulurunik, a female polar bear had been pursued by a low-flying airplane. Inside it were two white hunters who had temporarily mastered the sky but knew nothing of the ice below. Circling repeatedly and roaring just over the bear's head, they had driven it toward a flat where they could taxi in and shoot it. It had finally reached a wide expanse of dark ice, which it began crossing in spread-legged fashion.
Sensing their moment, the hunters had landed for what looked like a sure kill. Ice that could support a full-grown polar bear, they thought, was clearly strong enough for a light airplane. But as the plane coasted to a stop it had jarred suddenly and plunged through the ice. The female never returned to that spot; but another bear passed by a week later and discovered a man's body, frozen into the ice. Foxes had gnawed part of it away, but the bear only sniffed it and walked on.
At the end of the first paragraph Nelson signals something that a more ice savvy pilot would have noticed - the bear is spread-legged to spread its weight on what it sensed was weak ice. I wonder if something like this actually happened?
Finally, before returning to the government report, Richard Davis (Lords of the Arctic) says that all the frenetic activity over Chukchi skies triggered repeated U.S. and Russia fighter jet scrambles:
In 1957, the farthest from shore that a bear was taken in Alaska was sixty miles; the next year, it was two hundred miles. Many hunting parties said they saw the Siberian coast plainly and when they flew too close to the twelve-mile limit, radar screens on the American side were dotted with blips of Russian interceptors. When hunters overflew Big Diomede, a Russian island separated by only three miles from American-owned Little Diomede, Soviet planes threatened seriously, alerting American jets.
In the 1974 report cited earlier, Lentfer said that "Bears were hunted from February to May when their tracks could be followed and light aircraft could be landed on the sea ice." In that report he also says that "The skin was taken as a trophy and the meat was usually left on the ice." Back to the 1965 conference proceedings:
A few guides have attempted to offer dog team hunts to sportsmen hut they have been unsuccessful in developing this type of hunting. The physical exertion and time required are much greater as compared with aircraft hunting, and the trophies taken are usually smaller. Hunting of bears on foot or by dog team as practiced by Eskimos is usually done in association with seal hunting. Bears are shot whenever encountered, and no special hunting techniques, such as trained dogs, are involved.
Some bears are taken nearly every summer by the residents of Barrow while hunting walrus and bearded seals from boats along the edge of the ice pack. While the hides of these bears are of little value, the meat is completely utilized for human food. Sport hunting by boat has not developed because there are regulations specifically designed to prevent it.
In his 1974 paper Lentfer had some notes on the nature of the harvest:
Males formed 70 to 80 percent of the harvest because young and females with young were protected, and hunters often selected the larger animals, which were males. The average kill during the first decade of airplane hunting (1951-1960) was estimated to be 150 bears... the average annual kill for the second decade (1961-1972) rose to 260...
Native harvests decreased to about 25 percent of previous levels during the period when airplanes were used for hunting. This was partly because Eskimos were hunting less as they were changing from a subsistence toward a cash economy and partly because hunting with airplanes reduced the number of bears close to villages used as bases for hunting with planes. There was still an incentive for Natives to hunt, however, because hides not taken with the aid of aircraft could be sold. The annual Native kill averaged 13 percent of the total harvest for 1961-1972...
The 1965 report had some economic information:
...During the past 15 years there has been almost a complete shift from Eskimo hunters utilizing dog teams to white hunters utilizing aircraft. In consequence, there has been considerable change in the economic returns from the bears taken. At the present time, practically no meat is salvaged from the polar bear harvest aside from the relatively few taken by Eskimos. The Eskimos continue to benefit from the polar bear harvest, however, in that they provide many of the services associated with aircraft hunting in the Arctic. Fleshing of bear hides is done almost exclusively by Eskimo women for which they receive $25 per skin or more. Guide fees range from about $500 to $2,000. 'Air travel to and from the hunting base, hotel and restaurant charges, special clothing, cameras, guns and personal gear, all contribute to the exchange of money in connection with bear hunting. It would undoubtedly be realistic to say that each polar bear harvested in Alaska at the present time contributes at least $1,500 to the economy of the State in one way or another. If one considered only the bears taken by nonresident hunters who must, in addition to other expenses, purchase a $10 license and a $150 polar bear tag, the value per animal would undoubtedly approach or exceed $2,000. By this manner of reckoning, the 1965 polar bear harvest of approximately 300 bears directly resulted in the expenditure of about $450,000 within the State. Considering that a significant part of this money is expended in relatively small Arctic villages, its importance to the economies of these places is substantial. This economic importance of polar bears at the present time is sufficiently great to become a weighty element in management deliberations. Indications are that the demand for polar bears by sportsmen and trophy hunters will continue to increase with corresponding effects on the economics of polar bear hunting.
By the late 1960s, the state felt the need to add more restrictions to control the harvest (Proceedings of the 2nd Working Meeting of Polar Bear Specialists organized by IUCN at Morges, Switzerland 2-4 February, 1970):
In 1967, for the first time, guides were limited in the number of hunters they could take out. One guide could take out six hunters [I assume this is over the course of a year - Ben], or two guides working together, as is commonly done, could take out twelve hunters. Buyers were required to have permits but there was no limit to the number of permits issued. There were no serious problems with this regulation in 1967 and 1968. By 1969, however, more persons had become eligible to guide and were taking out more hunters. In addition there were violations of regulations by guides who took out more than six hunters.
The author notes that recommendations would soon be going to the state Board of Fish and Game to limit the numbers of sport permits issued each year. Moreover,
Later reports make clear that these regulations were not adopted in the late 1960s. However, it appears the Board of Fish and Game adopted regulations in 1970, because restrictions were in place in 1971 (Lentfer, in the proceedings of the third working group meeting):
Because it appeared that hunting pressure would continue to increase in future years and because it was not possible to enforce the regulations limiting each guide to twelve hunts, the Board of Fish and Game on the recommendation of the Department of Fish and Game, modified the permit system so that a limited number of permits (300) were issued for trophy hunting in 1971. Two management areas were established with a quota of 210 permits for the West area (west and south of a line extending northwest from Point Lay) and a quota of 90 permits for the North area (north and east fo a line extending northwest from Point Lay). The 621 applicants to receive permits were chosen by drawing, with applications from State residents and non-residents placed together for the drawing.
Also in 1971, the unlimited bag for residents who hunt from the ground and utilize bears for food was reduced to three. The primary purpose for ground hunting by residents has changed from a desire to obtain meat to a desire to obtain skins for sale. Three bears are judged to be an adequate bag limit because of the reduced importance of polar bears as a subsistence item.
And then, this:
The Department of Fish and Game is now recommending that the use of aircraft not be allowed for hunting polar bears after 1972. It is hoped that the quality of hunting and associated esthetic considerations can be upgraded by a change to hunting from the ground. It is also desired to stop the potential for overharvest which exists because of a market for unsealed hides and the difficulties of controlling activities of airborne hunters on the high seas and their smuggling of hides out of the State. The potential for overharvest would be greatly reduced if the valid excuse of guiding with aircraft could not be used as a cover for illegal taking of bears. It is also desired to stop the strong public opinion against the use of aircraft for hunting which could perhaps completely stop all hunting for polar bears along Alaska's coast. Polar bears are a renewable resource, a certain number of which can be harvested without jeopardizing populations. Controlling hunting from the ground would furnish high-quality recreation which is judged to be a desirable method of resource utilization.
The Department is also recommending that the sale of skins of bears taken from the ground not be allowed after 1972 on the basis that bears should be managed for high quality recreation and not as an item of commerce. This would also prevent bears from being taken illegally with the use of aircraft and then sold under the guise of having been taken from the ground.
The airborne hunt ended in 1972 (1974 IUCN Bear Specialists report):
...The State of Alaska assumed management jurisdiction in 1960, after statehood, and put more restrictive hunting regulations into effect during the following years as pilot-guides became more proficient in taking bears and more people desired to hunt. As the demand for skins increased, both by trophy hunters and as a saleable item, some guides started taking bears illegally. Because these were not entered in harvest statistics there was no way to assess the effect of the illegal take on the population, and there was a possibility of overharvest. This illegal hunting with aircraft and possible overharvest could not be controlled without a complete ban on hunting with aircraft. The need for control of aircraft hunting, public feeling against use of aircraft for hunting, and the fact that hunting with aircraft could be replaced by the much more acceptable method of hunting from the ground caused the State of Alaska to prohibit the use of aircraft for hunting after 30 June 1972.
As a replacement for hunting with aircraft, Alaska adopted regulations effective 1 July 1972, designed to promote recreational hunting from the ground. Natives with dog teams and snowmachines were encouraged to start guiding trophy hunters. The regulations permitted hunting during late fall, winter, and spring after pregnant females were in winter dens. Hunting pressure, degree of success, and the total harvest were anticipated to be much lower than when aircraft were used, but it was believed that most hunters that participated in a hunt from the ground would obtain a more satisfying hunting experience that when an airplane was used. Hunters would be less selective, and would take a higher ratio of females. However, with the reduced hunting pressure, the total number of females harvested would be smaller. From an economic standpoint, guided ground hunting could benefit Arctic coastal villages more than airplane hunting because guide fees would remain in the villages. Because the new regulations were in effect only from 1 July to 21 December 1972, when they were superseded by the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the recreational ground hunting program did not become established.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act transferred management responsibility for polar bears to the Federal government, permitted a subsistence harvest, but prohibited a sport harvest.
The State of Alaska was faced with managing a very profitable unregulated common property hunt in a remote rural area. As profits drew in more guides, and the guides became more skillful, the harvest increased, creating resource problems: localized depletion close to towns, and possible overharvest. Attempts in the late sixties to impose restrictions on the guides and pilots were circumvented by guide-pilots willing to break the law. Lawbreaking led to unreported harvests, raising all sorts of conservation red flags. Enforcement resources were inadequte to cope in the remote areas from which the flights were being staged. There was also a lot of outside criticism of the hunt. When the state finally outlawed hunting from planes, hoping to preserve a ground sport hunt, it was too late; the Feds were ready to step in and take over.