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 findings by Norway’s Veterinary Institute are unfortunate, but not unexpected, according to officials involved in sedating the bear and analyzing its death.
“Of course it is very regrettable that this happened, and it clearly shows that there is no easy solution to anesthetize a polar bear and carry it away from the settlement,” Morten Wedege, head of The Governor of Svalbard’s environment department, said in a prepared statement. “There are many factors that come into play, such as lighting and weather conditions and the safety of personnel during transport.”
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.
It was the second fatality of a Svalbard polar bear during January resulting from encounters with people. Another bear that made multiple visits into/near town was shot in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day because experts qualified to sedate it were unavailable due their traveling out of the region for the holidays.
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.”