Svalbard’s polar bears are healthy but still need protection | Polarjournal
A mother polar bear with her two cubs on the pack ice near Svalbard is a beautiful image. But Norwegian authorities and experts at the Polar Institute fear that this sight is becoming increasingly rare due to pack ice loss and disturbance by tourists. (Photo: Dr Michael Wenger)

For many people, Svalbard is the epitome of the polar bear’s home. For the archipelago seems to offer everything the great predator needs to thrive. The Norwegian Polar Institute has been studying the polar bear population every spring for decades to perform a kind of health check and also to obtain genetic information about the animals. Checks were made again this year. At the same time, experts and authorities are looking anxiously at the king of the Arctic.

One piece of positive news right away: the polar bears around the Norwegian-administered Svalbard archipelago seem to be in very good health. This is the conclusion reached by researchers at the Norwegian Polar Institute after studying 50 polar bears this April. Apparently the animals find enough food on and around the islands and also the cubs, which had just crawled out of the snow dens with their mothers, seem to be in good condition.

Even if some polar bears missed the walk onto the retreating pack ice with its seals during the summer, the smart hunters always find food. For example, the nests of eider ducks and other birds provide a welcome source of protein. (Photo: Dr Michael Wenger)

Polar bears are regularly searched for, anesthetized and then measured around Svalbard by experts from the NPI (Norske Polarinstitutt) in the spring. In addition, teeth will be examined and blood and tissue samples will be taken to provide an overview of the genetics of the Barents population, of which the Svalbard polar bears are a part, in addition to their health status. Contrary to the myth that Svalbard is home to 3,000 or more polar bears, it is believed that around 300 animals are at home around the archipelago. The rest hang around in the eastern regions, that is, on the Russian side of the region. Therefore, the researchers are very confident that their statement about the positive health status of the 50 animals studied should be representative of the rest of the animals on Svalbard.

The Instagram post shows a team from the Norwegian Polar Institute examining an anesthetized female polar bear that has two cubs with her. During the checks, the animals are measured and blood and tissue samples are taken. After that, they are left alone again. But the examinations are not without risk. Post: Instagram

Although these health checks provide important insight into population status, they have been repeatedly criticized in recent years, sometimes strongly, by environmentalists and animal rights activists. In particular, tracking and anesthetizing from helicopters is regularly described as dangerous for the animals, as polar bears also have died during the procedure in the past. When those had been females that had been out with their cubs, the damage was huge, according to animal rights activists. This is because the gene pool thus lost not only the adult animal, but also the young, as they have to be taken into human care and thus also can no longer contribute to the population. The experts of the NPI always reject the criticism and point to the fact that, on the one hand, the animals are treated with the utmost care and there is decades of experience which has continuously improved the field work. On the other hand, the data are very important because they help to complete the picture about polar bears in the region and to be able to create better protection measures.

Polar bears in the Barents region have been studied in the past by Norwegian and Russian research teams, as the majority of the population tends to occur in the eastern areas of the region. However, the current political situation makes cooperation virtually impossible. (Photo: Dr Michael Wenger)

Protective measures are needed by the king of the Arctic, according to the experts of the NPI and also the authorities of Svalbard, especially from the increasing influence of climate change and the growing number of tourists. Jon Aars, polar bear expert at the NPI, explained to Norwegian media that the dwindling pack ice is making it increasingly rare for the animals to visit their previous breeding grounds. Islands like Hopen and Kongsøya in the south resp. in the southeast of the archipelago were previously traditional sites for polar bear dens. “Some years there are hardly any animals that go into the dens there,” Aars says. “That highlights the problem.” However, experts believe the animals will move further east toward Russia, where ice conditions are still somewhat better. But even that is likely to be only a temporary condition, as some parts of the Northern Sea region are already experiencing severe warming and pack ice is melting earlier, faster, and coming later, if at all. Also the way to the north does not offer the optimal conditions, because there the food for seals also becomes less, which in turn negatively affects the polar bears.

The authorities on Svalbard and the government in Oslo want to close or more tightly regulate parts of the archipelago to people, locals and guests with new regulations and laws on Svalbard to protect polar bears. The conflict with the tourism representatives is pre-programmed. (Photo: Dr Michael Wenger)

Another threat, according to the experts of the NPI and the authorities, is the increasing number of tourists on Svalbard. More noise and more disturbance from the boats and snowmobiles is the biggest problem, experts and authorities or government circles are sure. Therefore, a tightening of the Environmental Protection Act and the Field Safety Regulation was sent for consultation and submitted to the people of Svalbard for review and comment. Some measures have already been implemented and certain regions previously visited by tourists and locals for their nature experience have been closed. But what is seen by the government, authorities and experts as a necessary and meaningful contribution to the protection of polar bears on Svalbard, meets with little understanding from tourism associations and stakeholders. Although they also want the protection of nature and the animals in it, but the way to get there and the fact that they had been left out in the process of the preparatory expertises causes irritation and displeasure. In an open letter in the local newspaper Svalbardposten, local representatives call on the authorities and government to reach a new, comprehensive and mutually acceptable outcome with all parties. Also for the polar bear, which is bursting with health but nevertheless faces an uncertain future.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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