A polar bear that approached Longyearbyen from Adventdalen early Friday afternoon was tranquilized and flown by helicopter from the area after it settled onto a shoreline across the channel from town near cabins and popular snowmobiling trails.
The Governor of Svalbard was notified about the bear at about 1:40 p.m. and immediately sent police into the area to warn travelers and prevent others from venturing near the animal.
“Now we’re just keeping people at a safe distance and waiting for the experts,” said Police Chief Lt. Arve Johnsen.
Scores of observers gathered at the edge of town to watch the bear – a tiny speck nearly indistuingable from a lump of ice – through binoculars and telephoto lens. Some also said they were keep a lookout for people they know who are out on tours, hoping to spot them making a safe return to town.
“So finally tourists can spot a polar bear from town,” Johnsen said.
Experts from the Norwegian Polar Institute recommended sedating the bear and flying it from the area in one of the governor’s rescue helicopters, rather than use a helicopter to chase the animal away, according to a statement from the governor’s office.
“Chasing it is more demanding and less easy on the bear, and it would have to be chased far away since thereare many excursions going this weekend,” the statement notes.
The bear was tranquilized from the helicopter at about 3:30 p.m. and, after a few start-and-stop efforts to wander back into Adventdalen, fell asleep on the snow.
Polar bear visits to Longyearbyen are rare since the town is far from traditional feeding areas, but with a record lack of sea ice this spring many of those areas are not suitable for hunting prey. As a result, not only are bears being forced to find new sources of food, they’re often increasingly aggressive and resistant to intimidation efforts.
The last approach near town occurred in October of 2014 – another bad sea ice year – when a bear made an early morning visit to multiple homes and buildings in the vicinity of The University Centre in Svalbard, then was spotted a day later across the channel. Officials subsequently tranquilized the bear and flew it to the northern part of Spitsbergen.
Another near-town encounter – either by the same or a different bear – occurred in August of that year when the animal ransacked a cabin across the channel twice in three days and visited several other cabins.
The most recent aggressive encounter with a polar bear was last Saturday at the northern tip of Spitsbergen, where a group of four Finnish tourists was forced to shoot an approaching animal when effort to chase it away with the signal pistol shot failed. The bear escaped wounded, forcing the governor’s office to track the animal down and kill it.