Tag Archives: satellite collars

Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea resumes after a one year hiatus

Fourteen bears tagged by the US Geological Survey (USGS) on or near the central Southern Beaufort Sea coast in April 2018 (near Kaktovik) will be tracked online over the coming months.

The break in published USGS tagging data from March 2017 to April 2018 was the first since the project began in December 2009 but no explanation for the hiatus has been provided. It is therefore unclear whether no tagging occurred in spring 2017 or data was simply not published online. The last bears followed were tagged in March 2016.

Tranquilized_pb570_S Beaufort March 2014_USGS

In contrast to previous years, this spring all fourteen of the bears have glue-on ear transmitters, which means they are either adult males or juvenile bears rather than females (which are fitted with satellite collars):

“In collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service we are also experimenting with glue-on and ear tag satellite transmitters, which can be deployed on adult male bears and younger, still-growing bears.”

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Tracking west Alaskan polar bears in the Beaufort in October – all at Banks Is., CAN

polar-bear-habitat_usgs-from-cbc-story-sept-19-2015

Two out of three polar bear females that were collared by USGS researchers near Barrow, Alaska last spring are hanging out on the northwest coast of Banks Island, Canada. The other bear (bright green icon) appears to have been collared on the ice off Prudoe Bay in April. And as I discussed last month, it’s unusual for bears from the western end of the Southern Beaufort subpopulation (or even the central region) to end up in the Northern Beaufort subpopulation territory.

beaufort-tracking-usgs-bear-movements-october-2016-sm

Original caption: “Movements of 3 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of October, 2016. Polar bears were tagged in 2016 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. All 3 of these bears have satellite collar transmitters. Polar bear satellite telemetry data are shown with AMSR2 remotely-sensed ice coverage from 29 October, 2016.” See full resolution image here and close-up below.

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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea during August 2016

Only three females with collars are still being tracked by USGS researchers in the Beaufort Sea and all of them spent August 2016 on the sea ice in the eastern portion, off the coast of Banks Island.

tranquilized_pb570_s-beaufort-march-2014_usgs

Meanwhile, as Arctic sea ice nears the annual low, NSIDC predicts that 2016 will likely not set a new record but may bottom-out below 2007 (the second-lowest since 1979). The impact of low September sea ice on polar bear health and survival, based on recent research reports, will be the topic of an upcoming post.
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New paper: U of A put collars on subadult SB polar bear males since 2007

Even though it is well known that subadult male polar bears (≤ 4 years old) continue to grow in mass and bulk as they mature – so that their thick necks get even larger – in recent years Andrew Derocher and his students at the University of Alberta potentially endangered the lives of many subadult males in the Southern Beaufort in the process of learning relatively little they didn’t already know.

polar-bear-radio-collar_CBC Oct 28 2015

Money quote from a just-accepted paper by Master’s student Jody Pongracz and supervisor Derocher (“Summer refugia of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in the southern Beaufort Sea” Polar Biology, in press 2016):

“The number of bears tracked varied over time due to collar design, deployment, and both planned and unplanned collar retention.”

So, how much “unplanned collar retention” issues [collars that did not fall off as expected] went on during this 2007-2010 study? They don’t say.

Is this paper saying U of A researchers knew they had ‘collar retention’ issues as far back as 2010 but continued to deploy them on subadult males after that study was over? It seems so, because they had an issue with just such a bear last year.

The bear with an apparently tight collar that was photographed last fall (see photo above) went out onto the ice and no one knows what happened – there has been no more information on him since, although researchers have apparently been watching for him, updated just yesterday). The University of Alberta statement says (under the June 2 update):

“Ongoing research at the University of Alberta is shifting to ear tag radios as required”

So now they realize that putting collars on subadult males is not such a good idea. Brilliant!

CBC News (28 October 2015): “Photo shows polar bear injured by tight radio collar“. See previous posts here and here. In a Global News interview (23 November 2015), Derocher admitted his team had “likely” put the collar on that bear, prompting the University of Alberta to issue a “Q & A” statement on the incident – which continues to insist that failure of collars to release is “rarely seen.”

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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea and the issue of open water in May

A map posted by USGS shows that the 13 polar bears with tags or collars tracked during April 2016 in the Beaufort Sea were down to 9 in May (7 females with collars, 2 subadult or adult males with tags). As two rather large patches of open water formed last month in the Beaufort – mostly due to winds and currents, rather than melt (see animation below, original post here) – a reasonable question is this: how have polar bears dealt with this somewhat unusual condition?

Polar_Bear_Biologist_USFWS_working_with_a_Bear_Oct 24 2001 Amstrup photo

Beaufort Sea breakup in April due to the effects of the Beaufort Gyre (NASA video):

There is also fairly extensive open water in Hudson Bay, so the same question can be asked for that region as well – but fortunately, we have data on tagged bears from both regions to give us a clue as to how the bears are faring.
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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea in April 2016 and early polynya formation

putting_collar_on_polar_bear_slider_USGS

Here’s the update on the polar bears fitted with satellite collars or ear tags in the Beaufort by USGS biologists over the last two years. Five new bears were added last month, which means there are now thirteen bears being tracked. Ice conditions are somewhat different than they have been in the past but concluding that such a situation means trouble is premature, I think (see here). Continue reading

Russian polar bear scientist critical of using radio collars

In an update to an earlier story from last month about a male polar bear spotted near Kaktovik with a tight satellite radio collar, a Russian biologist has voiced some some serious criticisms of the use of these devises.

polar-bear-radio-collar_CBC Oct 28 2015

In another news outlet, Andrew Derocher has finally admitted publicly that the Kaktovik bear with the tight collar is a male and is”likely his” (Global News, 23 November 2015; “Is this polar bear really being choked by a research collar?”). The male bear appears to have been fitted with a collar some time between 2007 and 2011. The collar should have fallen off by now but hasn’t. Derocher suggested maybe the collar isn’t really too tight and the blood might not belong to the bear. And that if the bear really wanted the collar off, he “…will be able to remove it himself.”

The criticisms of the use of collars are well worth reading.

UPDATE 25 November 2015: Another CBC report, not much more useful information except confirmation this is a male bear.
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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea – all three bears on the ice during October 2015

All three of the females with radio collars installed by USGS last spring (see footnote below) spent October out on the sea ice – which suggests the Kaktovik female with the tight collar that made the news last week was either wearing a failed collar, USGS removed her icon from the map, or she was not wearing a USGS collar.

polar-bear-radio-collar_CBC Oct 28 2015

It is possible that the poor bear was the one represented by the purple icon from last month (see map below), the only USGS collared bear that was on shore during September and still sending signals. The bear in the above photo was photographed in Kaktovik, easy walking distance for a bear, near the end of October.  The purple icon on shore in the September USGS map is no longer present this month.

As far as I know, there has been no follow-up information on the fate of this bear: we still don’t know whether the collar has yet been successfully removed.
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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. http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/polar_bears/tracking.html

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.
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Tracking polar bears – 3 out of 4 S. Beaufort bears on the ice during September 2015

The shore of Alaska is not very important to Southern Beaufort polar bears – most of them stay on the sea ice during the summer and early fall, where they may or may not continue eating. These results of on-going satellite tracking studies by USGS1 confirm results of previous studies.

Tranquilized_pb570_S Beaufort March 2014_USGS

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