As polar bears encroach on this Alaska village, feds charge whaling captain with illegally shooting one

Chris Gordon, center, sits during a meeting about polar bear management in Kaktovik in June. Federal prosecutors charged him Wednesday with shooting and killing a polar bear in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. (Photo by Nathaniel Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Federal prosecutors have charging a North Slope whaling captain with killing a polar bear in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Prosecutors said 35-year-old Chris Gordon shot the bear outside his home in the coastal Alaska village of Kaktovik, which has become a destination for both polar bears and tourists as Arctic sea ice has melted.

“Mr. Gordon allegedly left butchered whale meat outside in front of his yard of his residence for a substantial period of time, which attracted polar bear, as well as other animals,” Ryan Tansey, a Fairbanks-based federal prosecutor, said in a phone interview.

Gordon then shot the bear, Tansey said.

Reached by phone Thursday, Gordon declined to comment. He has an initial court appearance in Fairbanks scheduled for next month.

A male polar bear near Kaktovik. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Marine Mammal Protection Act allows the killing of animals in self-defense. But Gordon did not tag or report the polar bear as required, Tansey said.

Coastal Alaska Natives are also allowed to harvest polar bears for subsistence, or for crafts, but only if that’s done in a non-wasteful manner. In this case, prosecutors said Gordon left the bear carcass in front of his house for five months without salvaging any part of it.

Tansey wouldn’t say how the case came to prosecutors’ attention. But a press release about it said the investigation that led to the charges was done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Some residents of Kaktovik have been voicing concerns about their ability to protect themselves from the encroaching polar bears.

“The bear’s underneath my house in the morning when I go to work,” Mike Gallagher, a city council member, said at a public meeting last month. “Would it be your kid? Would it be my kid? It could be anybody down the street. These bears are getting used to people. They’re domesticated.”

If convicted, Gordon faces up to a $100,000 fine, and a year in prison.