Sickening effect of satellite radio collars polar bear researchers don’t want you to see

A report at CBC News (Photo shows polar bear injured by tight radio collar,” Martin Zeilig, 28 October 2015) shows the bloodied neck of a male Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear, taken near Kaktovik, Alaska, whose radio collar is too tight.

polar-bear-radio-collar_CBC Oct 28 2015

Researchers should not be putting collars on young animals and male bears – they know the problems! Who did the USGS have working for them that did not know this or couldn’t tell a male bear from a female? [see below] The other question is: how many more bears are in the same condition but out of sight on the sea ice – or dead due to their injuries? Don’t forget, this is a population that researchers claim is endangered because of climate change but which really declined recently due to thick spring ice in 2004-2006. [SJC – ambiguity fixed]

UPDATE 28 October 2015: 5:41 pm – in a comment under the CBC story, Churchill polar bear guide Kelsey Eliasson wrote (“4 hours ago”):

“This isn’t a he, it’s a she. Saw this bear during our trip, its a female with one cub.

Male polar bears are not radio collared.”

The statement in the CBC article that the bear with the collar is a male thus seems to be an error.  That makes more sense but does not negate the suffering of the animal.

UPDATE 5 November 2015: 8:30 am – I just received an email from a reader who contacted USGS about this bear and with their permission, I have copied the response below (leaving out the USGS contact person’s details), my bold:

Hello xxxx,

I do not believe USGS banded the bear. I have talked with staff at the USGS Alaska Science Center and found that the polar bear in the news was an adult male. The USGS scientists will band female polar bears, but not male bears. If you have questions, see this site. there is a link to the staff on the left. Click it and you will see a list with the project manager at the top.

It may be that USGS is accepting the word of one of the experts quoted in the story [Vince Crichton] that the bear is a male and have denounced their involvement on that basis. Obviously, other polar bear researchers must be working in the area, and Geoff York statements (below) suggest a crew from University of Alberta, led by Andrew Derocher.  But if Kelsey Eliasson is right that this is a female with a cub (see above update), it may indeed be a USGS bear, perhaps one who’s collar has stopped transmitting. The plot thickens.

From the CBC article:

“The photo was taken in Kaktovik in eastern Alaska, along the coast of the southern Beaufort Sea, said Susan Adie, a naturalist and guide who forwarded a copy of the image making the rounds on social media.
The photographer wishes to remain anonymous out of concern for her local guide’s ability to work with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Adie said, but the person told Adie it’s not the first time a bear has been seen in such a plight.

“The photographer has travelled to this place many times,” Adie wrote in an email. “The report back to me is that they have seen examples of these collars that are too tight on bears every time they have been to Kaktovik [over four years].

“Each year, the local people complain about the collars. However, the people who organize these photo opportunities are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their licence to operate.” [my bold]

Not so bad, don’t you worry says PBI rep Geoff York (former activist for WWF, now also a full voting member) of the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), help is probably on its way:

“Geoff York, senior director of conservation for Polar Bears International, said he knows about the bear in the photo and has reached out to the U.S. Geological Service and the University of Alberta to see who might have led work on the animals in that area.

“My guess is that a crew is probably waiting to go up there and remove the collar,” he said from Churchill, Man.

“Having worked for the USGS for 12 years doing polar bear research in the North, these sorts of injuries are rare, which is not to say it’s OK. We want to see this issue resolved soon.”

The people who placed the collar, not the manufacturer, should be blamed for the bear’s plight, said Vince Crichton, a Winnipeg wildlife biologist who worked for the wildlife protection branch of Manitoba Conservation for 40 years.

“It’s the individuals that put it on,” he said. “Just looking at how tight that collar is, it would appear they didn’t recognize that there would be an increase in the neck circumference of this male polar bear.”

“Male animals, including moose, deer, elk and caribou, have necks that grow in circumference during the fall breeding season, Crichton explained. [SJC polar bears breed in late spring (April/May); collars are typically attached in March/early April]

When he was doing caribou research, a bull caribou in eastern Manitoba added 30 centimetres to its neck circumference in 45 days, he said.

Wildlife biologist Paul Paquet admitted he’s attached radio collars that have ended up injuring animals.

“There is no doubt that the capture and handling of wild animals has an effect on their behaviour and physiology,” he wrote in an email.” [my bold]

Read the whole thing here. University of Alberta is Andrew Derocher’s crew, I believe.

Unbelievable. Here is another from the Hudson Bay area I was sent last year, taken by Jake Steven Arnatsiaq on 19 March 2012:

Photo by Jake Steven Arnatsiaq.

Photo by Jake Steven Arnatsiaq.

Nunavut residents have been concerned about this aspect of invasive polar bear mark-recapture research for years, which is routinely dismissed by researchers (see previous posts here and here). Despite the known dangers and concerns raised, putting collars on male bears and young growing animals is obviously an on-going practice for polar bear researchers. Collars put on female bears in the spring, before they reach their peak weight of the year, may also be at risk of out-growing their collars.

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