Working in rural Alaska provides a unique set of ever-changing challenges. Weather, remote locations, minimal communication options and a lack of set transportation corridors in a harsh landscape make safety a constant concern. Wildlife, specifically a healthy bear population, make working in Southwest Alaska particularly dangerous in the area’s rugged terrain.
In 2009, the Pebble Partnership partnered with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to conduct an extensive brown bear survey of the Iliamna Lake area. The study revealed populations at moderate to high densities. “Bear season,” which runs April through October, coincides with the heaviest load of field crews working within a broad area for the Pebble Partnership. Field work covers a wide range of activities from scientists monitoring hydrology stations to geographical surveys, drill sites to reclamation crews and a host of other on-going environmental studies. To date, the Pebble Partnership has invested more than $100 million in environmental studies alone, which often puts large numbers of people in the field.
To keep field crews safe, the Pebble Partnership has initiated a bear guard program with individuals proactively trained to avoid bear encounters and to take defensive measures only as a last resort. In the past, and in fact still today, some bear awareness programs utilize animal hazing and other aggressive forms of moving the animal away from people. Pebble’s approach instead is to stop work and moves people away from potential bear encounters while in the field.
“If a single shot is never fired, then we have had a successful season,” says Pebble Partnership Safety Manager, Tom Covington. “This bear guard motto is taken to heart in every action undertaken by the Pebble Partnership when working in the field. Crews are not returned to field areas where there has been bear sightings or activity until it is evaluated safe to do so by confirmation that the bear has naturally moved from the area.”
A wildlife log at the Pebble base, updated daily, provides the location and type of all wildlife that has been spotted in the field. This information is shared during the daily safety briefing and also reviewed by all bear guards before moving teams into the field.
Currently, there are 20 bear guards working for the Pebble Partnership, including local residents from Iliamna, Newhalen, Kokhanok, Koliganek and New Stuyahok, as well as several Pedro Bay Corporation shareholders. Bear guards are supplied by Clearstream as a joint venture between Fairweather, Inc. and Pedro Bay Native Corporation.
“Residents provide the ideal candidate to train as bear guards because they are already familiar with the region and Southwest Alaska’s dense geography, and often have existing tracking skills that aid them when looking for signs of bear activity,” says Covington.
Bear guards are assigned to field crews with the specific purpose of watching for bruins and keeping crews safe. This allows field workers to concentrate on the task, study or survey at hand without the worry of surprising a bear in the wilderness. In the event a bear is spotted in the area, the bear guard becomes the team leader and takes charge of all crew members. Crews are directed by the bear guard for whatever action is needed, most often immediate evacuation of the area until it is determined it is safe to return.
Each bear guard is assigned a radio with spot GPS tracking systems so that their movements and actions can be monitored at the Pebble base. The spot GPS includes an emergency locator beacon that can be activated with the push of a button to alert the Pebble base of an encounter, a back-up system should a bear guard be in a situation that prohibits the use of the radio. Designated check-in times have been established, and every move made by a bear guard is registered on a tracking screen with a Google map underlay. Bear guards are issued both non-lethal ammunition, such as beanbags, and lethal ammunition rounds for a 12-gauge shotgun, which is checked in and out daily per shift by the Pebble safety team. Both non-lethal and lethal ammunition is also counted in and out daily per bear guard. Bear guards are also issued a first response field first aid kit and are trained for in-the-field first aid.
The Pebble Partnership’s 2-day intensive bear guard training program includes both classroom and range instruction, with qualification criteria and certification managed by Learn to Return. Bear guards are put through a rigorous training session divided into five major sections: Bear biology/behavior and human interaction, safety, defense, field first aid and firearms. Training includes further field time with hands-on instruction of specific hazardous scenarios.
After participating in the Learn to Return Training Systems Bear Guard program, students are evaluated as to their level of performance and knowledge of their responsibilities as bear guards in an occupational safety environment. Attendees are evaluated through quizzes, exams, shooting sessions and personal interactions with the course instructors. Instructors award one of three possible ratings, with a suggested re-certification/refresher course every two years.
Class II (optimal): Participant performed all elements or tasks correctly, quickly and efficiently in an outstanding manner. Possess a solid understanding of the principles involved. This individual would be able to fulfill all bear guard requirements for both stationary camp settings and remote field settings and is considered an optimum resource for safety in bear country.
Class I: Individual performed most elements or tasks but made some false starts, repetitions or minor errors. Minimum standards have been met but some assistance may be required. This individual would be able to fulfill all bear guard requirements for stationary camp settings and could be a viable resource for the safety of camp personnel.
Non-rated: Individual performance did not meet minimum standards or required skill sets. Further training and experience is required.
The Pebble Project is located in Southwest Alaska on state land designated for mineral exploration and development. It is situated approximately 1,000 feet above sea-level and 65 miles from tidewater on Cook Inlet. The Pebble Partnership was established in July 2007 as a 50:50 partnership between a subsidiary of Anglo American plc and an affiliate of Northern Dynasty Minerals.