Polar bears onshore in Svalbard in most dangerous season for bear attacks

Yesterday marked the first report I’ve found for polar bears onshore this winter, in a potentially dangerous repeat of a pattern that has become all-too common in recent years (especially last year) with bear populations booming virtually everywhere (but especially around Svalbard).

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This is the leanest time of year for polar bears – fat Arctic seal pups won’t be available for another 2-3 months and meals for polar bears are hard to come by – and that makes the bears especially dangerous.

So, despite the marked lack of sea ice around Svalbard this winter, a female polar bear with two cubs were reported near the community of Longyearbyen (still enduring 24 hours of darkness) – on the west coast of the archipelago (see map above), where sea ice has been virtually non-existent for years (see map below).

Svalbard ice 2017 Jan 17_NIS.png

It appears these bears traveled overland from ice off the east coast. There is no mention in any of the reports that the bears were thin or in poor body condition, or had so far caused any of the problems for which desperately hungry polar bears are famous. However, one dog-sledding guide had a frightening encounter in the dark in this on-going saga that began over the weekend (details and photos below).

This was the item that caught my eye, in the Norwegian newspaper, The Local (Polar bears make ‘unusual’ overnight stay in Longyearbyen, 17 January 2017):

A female polar bear and her two cubs wandered out of Longyearbyen on Tuesday morning after spending the night in the capital of Norway’s Arctic Svalbard archipelago.

“We had hoped that they would continue out of Longyearbyen and along the waterfront, but they remained in Longyearbyen during the night. We tend not to be bothered by polar bears here, so having three in town at once is unusual,” Svalbard District Governor Kjerstin Askholt said.

At 5.30am on Tuesday, the footprints of the three bears were observed at the University Centre in Svalbard. Shortly thereafter the prints were seen near the Isdammen lake outside of Longyearbyen.

“So, they have moved out of town again,” Askholt said.

The district governor said that the polar bear family’s movements will be tracked by officials.

“We want to have as much awareness and control over the bears as possible. They are now being followed by crews on snowmobiles who will drive them into Todalen [valley],” he said.

Read the rest here.

However, there is much more detail in the online news source icepeople.net (ALERT: Polar bear tracks spotted at UNIS early Tuesday morning; storm making monitoring animals difficult, 17 January 2017), where it is clear these bears had been a safety concern for locals since at least Friday of last week (13 January):

Tracks from the three bears were first spotted about 25 kilometers outside Longyearbyen last Friday. Officials located the bears shortly after midnight Saturday about 10 kilometers from town, chasing them away using a helicopter and snowmobiles. The animals returned near town Sunday and officials spent hours chasing them further away, but the bears were seen again near Mine 7 on Monday. Askholdt noted in a statement issued at 10 p.m. Monday the bears had again been chased away toward Revneset.

The governor’s office has been working with polar bear experts with the Norwegian Polar Institute to determine the best way to handle the animals. Officials have in the past tranquilized persistent visiting bears and flown them to far corners of Svalbard, but Askholdt told Svalbardposten that option would be far more complicated in this instance since three animals are involved.

From the day before at icepeople.net (Bears are back: Mother, two cubs return to Mine 7 Monday after long effort to chase them far from town, 16 January 2017):

svalbard-female-2-cubs-16-jan-2017_bearsmine7_icepeople-news

Philipp Bergau, a local dogsledding guide, wrote on his Facebook page that he arrived at the kennel site with a guest and “stepped right back into the car” after spotting the bears about 20 meters away. In a separate post, he noted the bears were laying about 20 meters away from the road and the governor had sent three snowmobiles and a car to the site.

Officials from the governor’s office chased the bears away from town using a helicopter and snowmobiles shortly after midnight Saturday and again on Sunday – the latter effort taking considerably longer as officials hoped to cover a sufficient distance to discourage the bears’ return to settled areas.

See also Friday night fright: Governor chases away mother polar bear, two cubs near Longyearbyen (14 January 2017) and A long Sunday drive: Officials chase trio of bears a far distance after they return near Longyearbyen (15 January 2017).

Some recent winter sightings discussed here and here.

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