In Svalbard, Norway, it is routine practice to chase polar bears away from settlements with snow machines and helicopters, then tranquilize and relocate them if necessary but in late January this approach led to the death of a young male bear.
Necropsy results released 26 March 2020 revealed that the two year old bear, who had wandered into and around Longyearbyen multiple times in late January, was captured after a prolonged helicopter chase but died enroute as it was flown north to Nordaustlandet (see map below) from circulatory failure due to administering anesthesia after the prolonged stress of being chased.
Video here of the bear being chased out of Longyearbyen by helicopter (photo above is of the New Year’s bear). Longyearbyen has had more problems than usual with polar bears this winter due to the unusually extensive sea ice off the west coast of Svalbard. Polar bears are particularly dangerous in winter and with the abundance of bears in recent years many Arctic communities are at risk with each having to find their own solutions.
In the wee hours of New Years Day 2020 a fat Svalbard polar bear was shot because of persistent visits to downtown Longyearbyen and the public was outraged. A few weeks later a bear attacked a dogsled loaded with tourists. The death of the young bear in late January in the course of removing it (rather than shooting it) is a reminder that tranquilizing a polar bear, especially after a prolonged chase, can be as lethal as shooting it.
From this 26 March 2020 report (my bold):
“A two-year-old polar bear sedated and flown by helicopter away from Longyearbyen in late January because of repeated visits in/near town died during the flight of “circulatory failure/shock due to the combination of prolonged chasing, stress and drug anesthesia,” the Norwegian Polar Institute declared in a statement Thursday following an autopsy…
The final encounter with the bear occurred at about 5:30 p.m. Jan. 30 at Vestpynten, about five kilometers outside Longyearbyen, as the animal was heading toward town. Officials used one of the governor’s rescue helicopters to chase the bear into Adventfjorden, then stunned it with the intention of flying it to Nordaustlandet…
Jon Aars, a polar bear expert for the Norwegian Polar Institute who has spent many years on research-related projects in Svalbard, said in an institute press release the bear’s behavior before being sedated suggests factors besides the drug that may have been a factor.
“The bear had first been chased over time by helicopter and snowmobiles before being immobilized from the helicopter in the next round (after a shorter break),” he said.
“Before immobilization, it did not run away from the helicopter, as a younger bear would normally do. This may indicate that the bear has been exposed to hunting for a long time and/or under too-high speed in connection with its tolerance.”
“Polar bears are well insulated and are therefore sensitive to being hunted so that they must run or walk fast for a long time, compared to what is natural. There is a balance between what will be required pursuit speed to ensure that a polar bear can safely be moved away from settlements, and at the same time what is safe when it comes to its health.”
The autopsy shows the polar bear was healthy, with no injuries or signs of illness, although it’s size “was typical of a one-year-old.”
“This may also have been a two-year-old who was unusually small,” Aars said. “Although it was supposed to be a two-year-old male, it has escaped from its mother several months before the normal age. The fact that young cubs get away from mothers early is not uncommon, but the survival of single cubs is very low.”
The governor’s office, in its statement, notes they are reviewing the incident and chase/sedation procedures to avoid similar situation in the future, in consultation with experts from the polar institute.
“This episode shows the importance of having a written protocol that has specific frameworks for chasing polar bears from helicopter or snowmobile, including speed and time for hunting,” Aars said. “The governor is already in a process here where a similar protocol used by the Canadian administration will be used as the basis, in combination with advice from the polar institute. The desire is to best safeguard safety and health both for people in Svalbard and for the polar bears there.”
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