By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Federal authorities are investigating the fatal shooting of a polar bear at an Alaska oil field operated by BP, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the oil company said on Thursday.
The female bear was shot in early August by a security guard working for a BP contractor and died of its wounds about 11 days later, the agency and BP officials said.
BP said the guard had been trying to ward off the bear rather than kill it and believed he was firing nonlethal ammunition.
It appeared to be the first time since oil began flowing from Alaska's North Slope in 1977 that a polar bear was accidentally killed at a petroleum facility there, said Bruce Woods, Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman in Alaska.
"We're taking this investigation very seriously and hope to find out what happened," Woods said.
Polar bears, considered to be at risk because the Arctic sea ice they depend upon is dwindling, are listed as threatened with extinction under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. They are also managed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which generally forbids hunting of the animals.
BP, like other oil operators in Alaska's Arctic, holds a special permit allowing "nonlethal harassment" of polar bears, allowing the company to scare them away from facilities or otherwise cause them to change their movements, Woods said.
BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said the security guard appeared to have killed the bear by mistake. The guard believed his gun was loaded with beanbag-type devices used to ward polar bears away from facilities, Rinehart said. Instead, the gun apparently was loaded with pyrotechnic shells, he said.
The shooting occurred at the Endicott oil field, where the bear was prowling along a causeway toward employee housing, Rinehart said. Before turning to a weapon, the guard tried using lights and noises, but the bear seemed unfazed and remained fairly aggressive, Rinehart said.
After being shot, the bear moved from the immediate area but remained in the general vicinity, where BP guards monitored the animal, he said. The bear eventually died on a nearby island on August 14 or 15, he said.
Polar bears, which dwell along Alaska's Arctic coastline, occasionally cross through oil fields on the North Slope. In accordance with federal laws and regulation, the bears are monitored by the field operators.
BP recorded 541 polar bear sightings between 2005 and 2010, Rinehart said. Of those cases, 159 required some level of hazing, he said. There is one other documented case of a polar bear dying at an oil facility.
In 2002, BP alerted federal officials because a polar bear lingering around the Endicott field appeared to be starving and in distress, Rinehart said. A federal biologist eventually euthanized the animal, he said.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)