Taking the wild away from wildlife: Governor may close popular snowmobile areas again due to polar bear, seal disruptions

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Tip: If you’re trying to avoid disturbing polar bears they flee if they sense snowmobiles three kilometers away. If you’re not trying to avoid disturbing them you’re the reason a travel ban in areas they frequent is being considered this spring that may have profound consequences for tourism and expeditions.

tempelfjorden

The proposed no-traffic area of Tempelfjorden is shaded in red. Map by The Governor of Svalbard. (Click image for hi-res version)

The Governor of Svalbard is considering closing three popular snowmobiling areas in fjords to motor traffic this spring due to past disruptions to wildlife. Increasing police presence in travel areas is also planned. Public comments about the proposal are being accepted until Feb. 20.

Reports of individuals and groups disrupting wildlife last spring resulted in the governor temporarily closing portions of  Billefjorden, Tempelfjorden and Rindersbukta to traffic, and investigating several incidents for criminal violations. Officials said the traffic interfered with seals and polar bears (some with cubs) that hunt them, posing threats to both species and violating the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act that prohibits actions that affect wildlife behavior.

Billefjorden

The proposed no-traffic area of Billefjorden is shaded in red. Map by The Governor of Svalbard. (Click image for hi-res version)

“We can make this kind of situation-specific changes to the rules for motor traffic without prior consultation,” said Morten Wedege, the governor’s environmental affairs director, in a prepared statement. “The governor has nevertheless chosen to conduct a hearing, both in order to inform about our assessments and open to the public being able to express their views in the forefront.”

The proposed closures this year are at Billefjorden, Tempelfjorden, Van Mijenfjorden and Storfjorden between Wichebukta and Domen.

“It is difficult for the governor to predict how this year’s season will be – for example, with regard to ice conditions, the presence of polar bears on the ice or the total volume of motor traffic,” Wedege said. “The temporary changes that may be introduced are therefore based on the experience and the knowledge that is currently available as of today. If this changes, it will also be possible to make adjustments without a new hearing.”

van-mijenfjorden

The proposed no-traffic area of Van Mijenfjorden is shaded in red. Map by The Governor of Svalbard. (Click image for hi-res version)

A summary of the proposed traffic ban notes the average distance of encounters considered provocative last year was 1,534 meters and extended to a maximum of 2,700 meters because “of the fact polar bears flee because of snowmobiles at three kilometers distance.”

Alerts issued by the governor and published by the media failed to resolve the problem, the summary notes.

The proposal does seek to make travel in the general vicinity possible by the “shortest navigable route,” according to the proposal.

The full proposal (in Norwegian) is available at the governor’s website. The text in English (treat with extreme caution since the conversation by Google Translate should be considered adequate as a general overview only, since it is known to make sometimes egregious mistakes) can be downloaded here. Comments can be sent to the governor at firmapost@sysselmannen.no.

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Areas southeast of Longyearbyen shaded in red are closed to motor traffic as of March 1. The lighter shaded area is open to local traffic until then. Map by The Governor of Svalbard.

The governor is also reminding all travelers about the areas southeast of Longyearbyen that are closed to motor traffic as of March 1. While a fulltime ban is in effect in the area south of Adventdalen, a larger area further from town is open to local residents (but not those with visitors) until the end of February.

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