Feb. 12 (UPI) -- An archipelago in Russia's arctic region declared a state of emergency after dozens of polar bears descended on a small military settlement, forcing residents to stay indoors for safety.
The settlement of Belushya Guba, on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, is home to about 2,000 people -- and since December an estimated 52 polar bears. The bears normally congregate on the sea ice near the southern part of the Novaya Zemlya island chain, but a lack of ice this year has pushed the animals into human contact.
"There were instances of aggression from the wild animals, attacks on people and breaking into living and working quarters," the Arkhangelsk regional government said in a statement announcing the emergency Saturday. "People are scared, they are afraid to leave their homes, daily routines are disrupted and parents worry about sending their children to school."
Schools have built fencing around the buildings and are making special accommodations to transport children to and from school to ensure their safety.
The bears have broken into living quarters and other buildings in the village and have scavenged for food at a local dump. Residents said the bears are unafraid of loud noises like honking car horns or shooting guns into the air.
A Russian environmental group has refused to allow residents to shoot the polar bears, which are listed as endangered by the government. A team of experts were traveling to the village to determine how to encourage the bears to move to another area.
"I have been in Novaya Zemlya since 1983, but there has never been so many polar bears in the vicinity. I recall that over five polar bears are in the [military] garrison chasing people and entering residential buildings. However, if a cull is banned, we will have to embark on a longer and less safe way for local residents," said Novaya Zemlya head Zhigansha Musin
"A total of 50 polar bears are near the human settlements so we have loads of work ahead," he added.
Ilya N. Mordvintsev, a professor at the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution and Russian polar bear expert, told The New York Times it's unclear whether climate change is to blame for the lack of sea ice in the polar bears' normal terrain. He said sea ice can shift dramatically in the area depending on a variety of factors.