‘UNNECESSARY RISK’ BY OFFICIALS IN POLAR BEAR’S DEATH: Lack of equipment and failure to assess animal’s health among faults by governor and science experts, report states


Sharp criticism of the death of a polar bear tranquilized by officials in January near Longyearbyen is being expressed by The Norwegian Food Safety Authority, noting among other problems a lack of necessary equipment and failing to adequately assess the condition of the bear to determine if it could withstand the anesthesia, according to a report obtained by Svalbardposten.

The 62-kilogram female bear was tranquilized across the bay from Longyearbyen because of the danger it posed to nearby cabins as well as the city, following repeated visits by it and at least one other bear near or in town in prior weeks. Police loaded it aboard one of The Governor of Svalbard’s rescue helicopters with the intent of flying it far to the north, but the bear died in transit.

The decision to tranquilize and remove the bear was based on recommendations from experts at the Norwegian Polar Institute, and both the governor and institute received the assessment from the food safety authority citing numerous flaws in the decision and its execution.

“The condition of the polar bear was not sufficiently emphasized until a decision was made on whether the polar bear could withstand full anesthesia,” the assessment notes. “Absence of necessary equipment – i.e. oxygen, emergency medical equipment and the like during immobilization – pose an unnecessary risk to the animal.”

More generally, “there is no knowledge-based catching procedure about polar bears,” the food safety authority notes.

It was the second death of a bear seen in/near Longyearbyen in January, following a highly controversial shooting of a bear on New Year’s Day after it made repeated visits into town, with the governor stating there was no practical alternative since personnel qualified to tranquillize the bear were unavailable due to the holidays.

Such help was on-call when capturing the second bear and has been relied on many times in previous years. But Jon Aars, an expert at the institute who did not participate in the Jan. 30 incident, said immediately after the bear’s death the drug-and-remove approach isn’t a certainty.

“It will always be a risk to be mobilized, but it usually works out well,” he said. “Stunning and moving polar bears is a risk in itself, and then unforeseen things can happen.”

Aars also provided an official response for the polar institute in a compilation of response statements by involved agencies published this week by Svalbardposten. While he noted it’s possible, but very unlikely, the anesthesia drug might have been expired and that certain supplies lacking then such as extra oxygen have since been obtained, ultimately such situations typically require quick thinking and responses.

“It’s a difficult assessment that must be taken on short notice under quite special conditions,” he told the newspaper.