Svalbard finds tranquilizing & removing problem polar bears comes with risks to bears

From Polar Bear Science

Posted on March 29, 2020 | Comments Off on Svalbard finds tranquilizing & removing problem polar bears comes with risks to bears

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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March 30, 2020 10:12 pm

Polar bears get all the attention and the poor soi dogs of thailand are forgotten or even unknown in the rest of the world. Maybe if we could claim that soidogs as victims of climate change we’d get some help taking care of this huge population of strays that roam the streets with many casualties from being hit by cars and trucks and impacted by climate change somehow. We just have to figure out the how of it but surely there is an angle.

Reply to  chaamjamal
March 31, 2020 4:29 am

there are some charities helping them and the other starved neglected and ill dopgs all over asia in greece mid east and sth america. donations to them do seem to get directly there. I was horrified when i travelled os to see the state of pets let alone strays and admit I spent more money buying bags of dog food etc than tourist geegaws

Reply to  chaamjamal
March 31, 2020 5:26 am

It’s those damn climate change refugees from cold countries that cause more trucks and motorcycles on the roads, which leaves less roaming space or habitat for the dogs.
So yes definitely Climate Change related!

March 30, 2020 10:36 pm

You want Polar Bears, you got Polar Bears. Now for a real extinction problem

Bill Treuren
Reply to  nicholas tesdorf
March 31, 2020 12:01 am

This is fake news there are no Polar Bears, Green peace the god of all such creatures has said they are all but gone.

March 30, 2020 10:37 pm

I fear an hate any critter that thinks I’m lunch. Polar bears get no sympathy from me. Most city dwellers seem to think that Mother Nature is some kind of benevolent deity. She’s nothing of the sort and she’s out to get us.

The story of a mother smearing her child with honey for a photo opportunity with a bear is an urban legend, but it has a grain of truth. link In any event it does speak to the profound ignorance most city dwellers have about the wild.

Reply to  commieBob
March 31, 2020 2:09 am

Bob, I was in Bali with my family many years ago now. Went into the monkey forest and took the bananas the locals outside had sold us to feed the monkeys with us. I thought it would be a good idea to put them in my handbag and hand them out in a civilized manner. I know, what an idiot. Of course I screamed with fear when a large male jumped on my shoulder, guess what my husband said, “Hold still so I can take a photo!”

On the way out the signs warned not to feed the monkeys as they can carry rabies.

I’ve grown up alot since then, promise. I have more respect for animals now, great and small.

Reply to  Megs
March 31, 2020 4:46 pm

More monkey business –
Was in Zanzibar a few years ago, went into a nature preserve and all the little idiots were copulating in the canopy and peeing on us any chance they could get.
They really enjoyed it.

Reply to  yirgach
March 31, 2020 5:25 pm

yirgach I swear that we are ‘their’ entertainment!

Mad Mac
Reply to  commieBob
March 31, 2020 5:07 am

When I was in college in the 60’s I worked in Yellowstone Park one summer. Lots of brown bears and mothers with cubs. People feeding them kept the physicians at Old Faithful village busy treating bear bites.

Reply to  commieBob
March 31, 2020 5:29 pm

Bob, I don’t hate critters that think I’m lunch, but I respect them, cautious of them, and in uncontrolled venues i carry the means to kill them. They are dangerous, and Mother Nature in general is a vicious bitch. Few animals die by means other than a horrible, painful death – often experiencing being eaten alive.

Nature sucks for animals. Also for unaware/unarmed humans. At my last home in So Call there were two people attacked by a cougar about 150 yards from our house. One died, the other barely escaped. One biker, the other a jogger. Exploring nature while listening to their iPods. City dwellers are incredibly stupid, but they make the laws for how rural folk work their property. Go figure. They see our property as their playground.

Reply to  commieBob
March 31, 2020 7:14 pm

Agreed. And bears are not below us in the food chain, so I can’t see why it’s even desirable for them to exist.

Do they manage the population of some other species that would be harmful if it got more numerous?

Reply to  commieBob
April 1, 2020 3:35 pm

Here. Here. I take a dim view of animals that would expect to eat me. My advice to the Polar Bear Josh artist. Make a cartoon. Don’t be that bear. Otherwise expect to be a floor rug. And if I get some part of me gnawed off by a shark there will be no sympathetic, they’re a majestic species doing what they do from me; I’m going Cpt. Quint on their butts.

J Mac
March 30, 2020 11:37 pm

Application of ‘standard’ amounts of sedatives to individuals of the same animal species can have widely varying results. It’s true for humans, as well as other mammals.

Many years ago, I used a tranquilizer gun to ‘dart’ 2 similar size and age deer farm/ranch raised male white tailed deer. The large fenced pasture they were in had no effective capture pen in it. Using an identical mix of accepted tranquilizers, one went down easily into a deeply sedated state and the second one would not go down at all. The shot placement on both deer was nearly identical, high on the large butt muscle at the top of a rear leg. Examination of the recovered darts showed full ejection/injection of the sedatives. Rather than risk an overdose with a second shot, I and the owner of the deer elected to hand capture the now slower moving deer and proceed with relocation of both deer. Both deer recovered, as expected.

Even with highly trained anesthesiologists monitoring humans in clinical conditions, humans rarely but occasionally die under ‘routine’ sedation. I’m not surprised to hear of a rare polar bear death, under rough field sedation conditions.

Reply to  J Mac
March 31, 2020 5:38 pm

We saw that with our three female cats when we moved from So Cal to north of Reno, NV. Gave each a half dose of valium. The 10-pound, 3 year-old went down immediately, and stayed down for the entire trip. The 13-pound, 4 year-old went down after an additional half dose. The 9-pound, 4 year-old howled (drunkenly) for the entire miserable 8’5 hour trip after a full 2 doses. We were afraid to do more. She tore up everything within reach of their cage in that rental van. What a mess.

Humans have an anesthesiologist watching over them for procedures. After seeing how these three handled Valium, I’m glad they do.

Reply to  KaliforniaKook
April 1, 2020 9:55 pm

As a veterinary surgeon doing my own anaesthesia I know all too well about idiosyncratic reactions to sedatives. The dosage in the data sheet applies to the majority of patients but the minority which needs more or less is pretty large. One dog can be flat out on a dose which leaves it’s littermate still able to bite!
And giving a powerful sedative to a stressed animal whose weight is estimated is a high risk procedure.

March 30, 2020 11:49 pm

more Svalbard:

26 Mar: Climate Home: Coronavirus: in Hawaii’s air, scientists seek signs of economic shock on CO2 levels
Ralph Keeling estimates that global fossil fuel use would have to decline by 10% for a full year to clearly impact CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere
By Alister Doyle
“There has never been an economic shock like this in the whole history of the curve,” Ralph Keeling, professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and son of Charles Keeling, told Climate Home News of the impact of the coronavirus…

On the other side of the world in Norway, Kim Holmen, international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, says his team is also closely monitoring carbon dioxide levels at the Zeppelin station on a mountain on the Arctic island of Svalbard.
“The curve is not pointing upwards,” he said of carbon dioxide measurements in March, which are usually rising at this time of year. Still, he said that it would probably take months to know if it was related to coronavirus.
And he said there were many local factors affecting carbon levels, even in parts of the world isolated from industrial centres such as Hawaii or Svalbard.
Around Svalbard, for instance, “it has been colder this winter than the past 10 years,” Holmen said. That meant there had been more ice on the surrounding seas in the winter, putting a lid on waters that can release carbon dioxide into the air…
“We can hope that emissions stay down for the right reasons afterwards. This [coronavirus] is not the right reason,” he said.

Bryan A
Reply to  pat
March 31, 2020 5:25 am

I thought that Arctic waters were COLD waters and that cold water absorbed CO2 not released it

Right-Handed Shark
Reply to  Bryan A
March 31, 2020 6:01 am

But this is climate science! cause and effect are interchangeable as circumstances develop..

Jim Whelan
Reply to  Bryan A
March 31, 2020 12:15 pm

More CO2 dissolves in warm water than in cold water.

Bryan A
Reply to  Jim Whelan
March 31, 2020 2:09 pm

Wasn’t one of the feed backs supposed to be a Warming Ocean releasing CO2 as it warmed??

Reply to  Jim Whelan
April 1, 2020 10:10 am

For some odd reason, warm waters can hold more solids in suspension, however gas diffuses better into cold water.

Reply to  pat
March 31, 2020 6:00 am

They are starting early trying to invent their excuses.

With no immediate evidence of atmospheric CO₂ reduction, those dependent upon pushing the anti-CO₂ meme have to start filling the with excuses and distant predictions.
e.g. “estimates that global fossil fuel use would have to decline by 10% for a full year to clearly impact CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere”
• 1) “estimates”
• 2) “global fossil fuel use”
• 3) “decline by 10%”
• 4) “for a full year”

Four significant variables, easily allowing escape from their ‘prediction’ at any time

““There has never been an economic shock like this in the whole history of the curve,” Ralph Keeling, professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and son of Charles Keeling, told Climate Home News of the impact of the coronavirus”

Utter nonsense.
Every World War where invasions and destruction devastated industries and populations has caused similar economic chaos.
Making the ‘Keeling’ statements pure hubris with sufficient for their future excuses regarding their assumptions and predictions.

N.B. Holmen’s including the little tidbit that frozen oceans mask, obscure or prevent CO%#8322; interactions with cold oceanic waters.

Also note that Holmen directly implies that winter ice prevents CO₂ emissions; ignoring CO₂’s inverse relationship with water; i.e. cooling water absorbs CO₂ not emits CO₂.
Now that local to Svalbard sea ice is melting, this exposes oceanic water to atmospheric/solar warming which will increase CO₂ emission.

Reply to  ATheoK
March 31, 2020 7:46 am

Every World War where invasions and destruction devastated industries and populations

Keeling: ” in the whole history of the curve”.
How many WW did you see since 1958 ?

short term variation ( dCO2 ) is primarily driven by SST so a few months of shut may be not be visible. I doubt the economic effect we are creating for ourselves will be that short though. The oil crisis of 1973 is visible so I expect this one will to.

They will probably get their 10% , then they be stuffed.

Reply to  ATheoK
March 31, 2020 7:52 am

When was the last World War? When did measurement of the curve begin?

Lewis P Buckingham
March 31, 2020 1:08 am

With anesthesia its always tricky to get the right dose, however its useful to titrate the dose upward, rather than give a calculated knock down dose.
In this article it was suggested that such dosing be investigated.
‘Immobilization.—The use of a higher concentration of drug in Foxe Basin in 2008 meant that these bears received 25% more drug in the first 7-ml dart than administered to bears in other capture seasons.’
Thats because the physical state of the animal may only be estimated, not known.
With this drug combination it may be of benefit to use atropine to prevent slowing of the heart and excessive salivation that may choke susceptible individuals.
As sedation stops thermoregulation it may be necessary to heat the patient, or at least monitor it to prevent hypothermia.
This drug combination is not ‘safe’ if the patient is dehydrated, as it may damage the kidneys.
More funds, in the right hands, are needed to test this and post sedation protocols to reduce mortality rates.

J Mac
Reply to  Mike Jonas
March 31, 2020 10:51 pm

Just so. These are brutally efficient apex predators. If the flash/bangs and rubber bullets don’t convince them to leave the area and never come back, give them 180 grains of spire point boat tail ‘sedation’ and make the best use of their carcass and hide as you can…. before they do that to you.

March 31, 2020 4:15 am

All this “right on ” pussy footing around does no one any good, not even the polar bears.

If a bear is a persistent risk to a community shoot it. Then sell the fur to help pay for civil defense from polar bears.

There is now a more than healthy population and at some stage they will need to ease the hunting restrictions to control the problem. Putting local lives at risk because they look all white and fluffy on the front cover of Nat Geo. is NOT acceptable.

Those who do not agree should be given a free ticket to Svalbaard and couple of pounds of fresh seal meat to go and get to know these idyllic creatures.

March 31, 2020 4:45 am

The WWF ran TV ads this past weekend asking for money to help “endangered” polar bears, because they need ice to get to-from food sources. Along with woeful-sounding music and voice-over, there were the usual tear-jerking images of bears standing on ice at water’s edge. No mention, though, that polar bear populations have been growing quite well, nor was there any mention that the scientific name of polar bears is Ursus maritimus.

I guess Pelosi was unsuccessful in getting a handsome handout for the WWF in the recent 880-page, $2T “stimulus” bill.

March 31, 2020 5:00 am

Why not eat unwanted bears? They are said to be delicious and make great rugs as well. Think of all the carbon emissions caused by all this helicopter usage. Seems like more pathological altruism to me.

Reply to  Tim
April 1, 2020 6:05 pm

Do not eat polar bear liver, unless you want vitamin A poisoning.

Bryan A
March 31, 2020 5:15 am

Perhaps they should “cut the chase” and just immediately tranquilize and relocate

J Mac
Reply to  Bryan A
March 31, 2020 12:19 pm

Bryan A,
Perhaps you have some valuable experience you could share? Have you ever wrangled, captured, tranquilized, or transported dangerous wild animals?

Bryan A
Reply to  J Mac
March 31, 2020 2:27 pm

Can’t say that I ever have, but if Chasing them is causing stress that is then compounded by the tranquilizer dart and combining to cause death, wouldn’t it make more sense to eliminate the stress of the Chase portion and just go straight to the tranq?

J Mac
Reply to  Bryan A
March 31, 2020 10:41 pm

Why sure, Bryan. It’s just logical. Hungry wild polar bears will stand regally posed, like a disney movie character, and let you walk right up and give them a heavy injection of sedation. Or perhaps it would ‘make more sense’ to offer it a couple of valiums and a bottle of Coke to wash them down, eh? Simples! And completely non-stressful for the bear.

Are you willing to demonstrate your insightful ‘catch the hungry male polar bear’ skills first hand to the less talented folks at Svalbard? I’m sure they would appreciate witnessing the effectiveness of your special skills in action…. and the bears will appreciate the fresh meal.

It would be better for you to test your plan on a wild coyote on a breezy 40F day first, before you try it on a hungry polar bear on a -35F Svalbard night. You might survive the coyote and learn a little bit in the process.

Reply to  J Mac
April 1, 2020 10:14 am

Look up tranquilizer “dart” some time.

J Mac
Reply to  J Mac
April 1, 2020 12:56 pm

What is your point? I have used tranquilizer guns in the past. There are a host of variables that can ‘go wrong’ (if you aren’t aware of them and take the necessary actions to minimize them), when using tranquilizer guns to tranquilize animals.

March 31, 2020 5:30 am

Trigger warning for snowflakes who don’t know what snow looks like-
Stop appropriating and colonising their culture nasty Green imperialists.

March 31, 2020 6:06 am

“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.”

Involving government administrators right up to and including the governor’s office…
How much does all this official intercession cost?

There are far too many bears in certain areas. Rather than introduce multiple costly 2nd guess levels; provide a simple clear directive to local officials to “best safeguard safety and health both for people in Svalbard” and let those local officials ensure that safety as needed.

March 31, 2020 6:34 am

Bison are being shot in Yellowstone…too many of ’em. Elephants and monkeys and dogs are in trouble in Thailand – no tourists. Man cannot manage Nature – it is always dark comedy. When Yellowstone was taken over, all the predators were killed….the deer herds expanded…the deer ate the leaves of young trees….the forest changed. Tigers are doomed…it is just a matter of time before only captive tigers are alive and none of pure blood…..but not to worry….man can manage the atmosphere….just need to slightly adjust that CO2 control knob.

March 31, 2020 8:37 am

Sounds like the solution is, if you are going to tranquilize them anyway, just do it in town rather than chasing them out of town first.

Mark A Luhman
March 31, 2020 9:37 am

Moving animals from one location to another no mater how it done, seldom saves the animal. A piece of ground any piece of ground that can support any animal x1 will have on on it when you drop animal x2 on it either x1 will have to move or x2 will, the reason the x2 was where it did not belong is id did not “wander” into town. it wandered into town looking for territory it can occupy. It more than likely had been chased there but another of it own species. We need to simply eliminate the excess and not play games with them and ourselves as to what the problem is.

Jim Whelan
March 31, 2020 12:14 pm

You can’t believe how sad I am. All that effort when a single bullet could have solved the problem quickly and efficiently! What a waste of resources.

Reply to  Jim Whelan
April 1, 2020 10:16 am

I would tend to agree, however hunting licenses for greens still aren’t legal.

Joe Chang
March 31, 2020 12:56 pm

I would propose tying a reindeer carcass, towing it with a snowmobile to lure the bear far away, but I wouldn’t volunteer to be the driver

Rudolf Huber
March 31, 2020 3:26 pm

Tell Greta, Gore, and Attenborough that there are more Polar Bears than ever and that their sheer numbers threaten the lives of those in the north. Also, tell them that the extent of the ice goes so far as to allow the bears to wander the entire arctic at will. Those bears and the ice cannot have seen the predictions made by our alarmist superstars because according to them, they cannot exist. Maybe they are ghosts.

April 1, 2020 4:40 am

I would be curious to know how many times they have tried this procedure and how many times they have had mortality. It would seem to me there would be an acknowledged risk factor of tranquilizing and transporting a large animal. Even if only a 2% chance, after say 30 runs the probability is close to 50/50. Although unfortunate it should not only be expected, it should be used as a data point to validate their initial assumptions.

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