A bear of a census: first count of polar bears in 11 years underway despite difficulties


For those who consider census takers invasive because they ask all that personal stuff, at least they don’t shoot you with tranquilizers and implant transmitters (unless the tinfoil-hat brigade is smarter than we all realized).

But the polar bear population in Svalbard and other parts of the Barents Sea will be getting that kind of treatment during the next four weeks as officials are conducting their first regional census of the species in 11 years.

The researchers will also “collect data on presence and densities of whales in the northern parts of the region,” according to the official blog of the project led by the Norwegian Polar Institute.

The census is a scaled-back version of a long-planned joint count by Norway and Russia, as the latter decided just weeks beforehand to deny its part of the Barents Sea region to Norwegian researchers for reasons not publicly specified. Jon Aars, an NPI polar bear researcher, said the hope is Russian officials will still conduct a count in its territory soon and thus provide researchers with a rough – if not ideal – overall population estimate.

It is assumed there are between 1,900 and 3,600 polar bears in the Barents Sea region, with numerous factors during the past decade accounting for the large degree of uncertainty.

“It is well known that polar bears have a number of challenges related to climate change and pollution,” wrote Elin Vinje Jenssen, an NPI communications advisor, in a blog entry Monday. “Late arrival of sea ice around the traditionally important denning areas as Kongsøya and Hopen in Svalbard has in recent years led to few females having reached the islands to hibernate. In milder years, fewer cubs are born in these areas than in cooler years. Scientists know that many years with little ice can lead to low survival rates, especially among young animals, but it is still uncertain whether this has led to reductions in population size, or if the population is still expanding.”

The researchers departed on the Lance research vessel Friday “after some hectic days” packing and testing equipment in Longyearbyen, according to Magnus Andersen, another NPI researcher contributing to the blog. The census takers are initially traveling south before proceeding to ” the main challenge but also the main adventure of our cruise” – the ice edge far to the north.