Another rare winter visit by a polar bear on New Year’s Eve, this time in Svalbard, comes with far more detail than the sighting in Newfoundland that I wrote about yesterday.
The Svalbard problem bear was shot over safety concerns after repeated visits to the downtown streets of the main town of Longyearbyen on the west coast (see map below). Neither of the reports bothered to mention that this was not a starving juvenile bear but a fat, healthy young adult – and no one blamed global warming for the incident because Svalbard has had extensive ice on the west coast this fall for the first time since 2010. The shooting of course sparked an outburst of social media outrage.
UPDATED 16 January 2020: As I predicted would happen (see below), there has been another polar bear incident about 10 km outside of Longyearbyen in Bolterdalen. On Wednesday 15 January, a bear attacked a dogteam loaded with tourists near the end of their trip. The bear was advancing so fast there was no time for the driver to grab his rifle, so he used the heavy rope used to brake the sled to hit the bear across the muzzle several times. This stopped the attack and made the bear run off. Svalbard officials are now chasing the bear well out of the area. From this report:
“Starinsky, a guide for Green Dog Svalbard, located about 10 kilometers east of Longyearbyen, told the newspaper there was no time to grab his rifle as they stopped the sleds within seconds, and the bear got within yards of a sled carrying a mother and her daughter. He grabbed “the first and best” thing he could think of – the noose-shaped brake rope hanging on the front of his sled.”
It turns out the bear’s tracks were spotted the day before just south of town. All that remains of the attack are the tracks of the bear near the dog kennel, below, and the nightmares of the people involved in the days ahead. They were very lucky indeed.
Video footage from 26 December published by Norway’s TV 2 shows the bear was fat and healthy (see screencap below), so no one mentioned the condition of the animal (leaving naïve readers to assume it must have been ‘starving’). Conservation officers told the Barents Observer that the bear was a seven year old adult male who had been seen repeatedly around the capital since just after Christmas.
The governor of Svalbard told Forbes that the same bear had been captured and relocated near the town in 2016. However, this year there were not enough qualified people in Svalbard between Christmas and New Years to handle another relocation attempt. Since this was a potentially dangerous bear that did not respond to several attempts to drive it out of town, it had to be shot before someone was mauled or killed.
A photo of the polar bear on 28 December 2019 is shown below, courtesty IcePeople.
One of three reports published on the online news outlet IcePeople yesterday captured the now-expected, over-the-top social media fury unleashed over the incident [my bold]:
A decision to kill a polar bear at 4 a.m. New Year’s Day because it kept venturing into Longyearbyen, even though it has been chased some distance away and didn’t post an immediate danger to humans, is triggering a familiar and fierce debate about the decision – as well as the mere presence of humans/tourists in the inhospitable landscape of Svalbard.
The bear, a seven-year-old male, was killed because it was impossible for officials to be fully aware of the bear’s location due to the 24-hour dark of polar night and the personnel able to tranquilize it so it could be flown by helicopter to remote area were away for the Christmas holidays, Gov. Kjerstin Askholt said in a prepared statement.
But as with other bear killings by officials and civilians – which have included instances such a cub being killed after the mother was shot, and bears wounded in encounters/attacks being tracked and killed – the outrage was immediate and plentiful in comments posted on social media.
“Don’t talk about Svalbard anymore as a sustainable destination, please,” wrote Stéphanie Unterthiner, a Longyearbyen resident who moved from France, on a community “praise and information” Facebook page where numerous alerts about the bear’s presence were posted. “It’s ALL FAKE. It’s just a big business tourism area, where people can do almost anything and the governor is always over their law. Killing a bear here, not because of an emergency situation, is simply unacceptable! Happy New Year Svalbard??”
Askholt said there aren’t enough officials for a continuing 24-hour watch and even with one the dark meant the bear couldn’t be reliably tracked, putting people in danger because of the bear’s clear inclination to keep returning to town even after being chased away several times. That argument carried the most weight among commenters supporting her decision.
The lack of qualified personnel to tranquilize and transport the bear was among the most frequent criticisms of the government’s policies and reactions when the predators are near humans and/or settlements.
“There should always be someone with competence on Svalbard ALL YEAR ROUND no matter what,” opined Bee Nord, another local resident. “This was a disgusting loss of life which was unnecessary had our tax money been used correctly to support training for the governor’s unit in better dealing with this ‘type’ of persistent bear. Disgusting decision to shoot him.”
Some argued holidays for such personnel are inevitable, sometimes to locations where a quick return isn’t possible, and even their presence isn’t a guarantee a persistent bear can be transported safely.
Locations bear tracks were found included hotels and pubs such as Basecamp Spitsbergen and Kroa in the center of town, and a few meters from the recreation area at Longyearbyen School. The bear’s visits mostly occurred in the early morning hours, so a person outdoors at the time might well have been alone without others awake and nearby to help or report if an encounter occurred.
There was no attempt by any of the media outlets reporting on the incident to blame it on lack of sea ice or climate change.
It’s no wonder they all avoided the mention of sea ice, since Svalbard has had more ice this fall than it has experienced since 2010 (fall in the Arctic is October-December). In the days before the bear was sighted on the 26th, there had been rather extensive pack ice off the west coast (see chart below for 23 December) as well as developing shorefast ice in the fjords, which would have allowed this bear (and any other who so chose) to walk into Longyearbyen over the ice:
According the the Norwegian Ice Service, since at least 1998, ice off the west coast has been a rare event (see chart below for 29 December 1998):
Compare above to 1997 a few weeks earlier in the month (11 December 1997, below). At that time, there was much more ice to the north and south of Svalbard than this year and pack ice incursions along the west coast from both the north and south:
Only in 2010 (see chart below) was there as much ice along the west coast as was present this year in late December, although in 2002 was there enough ice in the fall for more than a dozen pregant females to den on Hopen Island in the southeast.
As I’ve discussed previously (with references), encounters with bears were common in December and January in the 1970s and 80s when ice was present every year along the west coast of Spitzbergen, where virtually all human settlements in Svalbard are located. Incidents on the west coast in recent years have all involved bears that have travelled over-land from the east.
It was eventually admitted that the bears approaching the settlement of Ryrkaypiy in Chukotka this fall were young bears driven off carcasses of walrus by older, bigger bears and it is likely this relatively young Svalbard bear is on land for the same reason. Competition for scarce natural resources in late fall and winter is a real phenomenon for polar bears, as I noted in relation to the invasion of Belushaya Guba by habituated dump bears last winter: it’s why most bears are at their leanest at the end of winter and why bears onshore at this time can be persistent and extremely dangerous.
Hunting has been banned in Svalbard since 1973, which means there are far more fully mature adult males around than there have been for more than 100 years. These big males are capable of stealing seal kills from younger bears and excluding them from productive hunting habitat over the fall and winter. It is a dangerous downside to maintaining large populations of polar bears that are not ever hunted.
Polar bears in Svalbard are thriving despite recent low summer ice, although the last survey estimated that only about 250 bears were loyal to the archipelago year round (with most Barents Sea bears preferring the sea ice east of Svalbard or around Franz Josef Land in Russia). Residents of Longyearbyen should be prepared for more problem polar bears over the next few months: pack ice has been extensive all year and with so much present on the west coast of Spitzbergen so early in the season, the ice is on track to cover the west coast throughout the winter, as it did in 2011.
The ice is so extensive this year that it may even reach Bear Island far to the south before the end of January, which didn’t happened in 2011.
As can be seen above, by 2 January 2020, the ice was as close to Bear Island as it was by late February 2019 (see below). By early March 2019, ice had reached Bjørnøya and stayed for several weeks, leading to a bear in good condition being photographed on the island for the first time since 2011. So the few residents of Bear Island should probably expect more polar bear sightings this year.