‘(NEAR) RECORD NUMBER OF ANIMALS AND TWO CRUEL DEATHS’: Annual Svalbard reindeer count shows Mother Nature was kind, but humans discarding steel wires were a fatal snag

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Photo by Trine Lise Sviggum Helgerud / Norwegian Polar Institute

It was a highly favorable winter for nearly 1,700 Svalbard reindeer, the second-highest count ever in an annual census, but for researchers conducting the count it’s two reindeer who didn’t survive who are much in mind as they were fatally snagged in wires discarded by humans.

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A male reindeer that died after its antlers became tangled in metal wires is observed by researchers during this year’s Svalbard reindeer census. Photo by Trine Lise Sviggum Helgerud / Norwegian Polar Institute.

“Five reindeer counters, ten days, almost 170 kilometers on foot and almost 1,700 Svalbard reindeer,” the researchers noted on the Norwegian Polar Institute’s Facebook page. “This year’s counting team has recorded record numbers of animals and two cruel deaths.”

The “record” isn’t quite that, since this year’s count is just shy of the record 1,700 reindeer in the 2018 census.

This year’s count in June and July progressed from Bjørndalen just west to Longyearbyen to the valleys east of town. Because weather conditions were favorable – such as an absence of rain/freeze cycles covering the ground with ice – reindeer were able to eat well and was a blessing for the young animals.

“It’s fun to be in the terrain now because so many of those born last year have survived,” Åshild Ønvik Pedersen, a veteran of several counts, told Svalbardposten. “And last year’s calves are so curious and if you sit down then they will come to you. The yearlings can come up to a meter from you.”

There were 27 dead reindeer observed – and it was one was found above the airport and another near the snowmobile trail in Telenorlinken that offered a dark note to this year’s count. Both were bucks with large antlers that became fatally snared in wires, a common cause of deaths among reindeer and other animals in Svalbard over the years.

In perhaps an ironic twist, the healthy winter provided by nature means humans may see an abundant hunting season this fall.

“There are lots of animals to take off,” Pedersen told Svalbardposten. But she added “I know there are many who want to kill more animals, but it is the authorities who decide. I think it is important, together with all actors, to put in place a new management plan for the Svalbard reindeer. The management plan that applies now is from 2009 and it should be adjusted according to new knowledge and seen in connection with the other huntable species.”