NO CHARGES IN DRUGGED BEAR’S DEATH: Autopsy shows polar bear tranqilized for research tagging apparently drowned when its head ended up in water, governor rules


A polar bear that died in September while in the process of being “tagged” by researchers likely drowned when its head ended up in a pool of water, The Governor of Svalbard announced Tuesday. As a result, no charges are being sought in the matter.

Researchers from the Norwegian Polar Institute tranquilized the nearly three-year-old male bear from a helicopter at Austfjorden in north Spitsbergen on Sept. 9. Experts said at the time the bear, which was in good health and of normal weight, was likely spending its first months apart from its mother since cubs typically follow their mother until they are are about two-and-a-half years old.

The bear died, promoting an nvestigation by the governor involving an autopsy conducted by a court-appointed expert.

“The expert has, after the autopsy, concluded that the polar bear most likely died of drowning because during the anesthesia and before the veterinarian arrived at the scene he ended up with his head in a pit with water,” Lt. Gov. Sølvi Elvedahl said in a prepared statement “The expert also cannot rule out that the cause of death may be due to an unforeseen side effect of the anesthetic medetomidine, or possibly a combination of both conditions.”

In either event, the researchers’ actions do not constitute a criminal offense, Elvedahl said.

The death was the second this year involving a tranquilizer, following one that died in January that was sedated for removal from the Longyearbyen area because it made continuous visits to settled areas.

Bears are routinely sedated for research and removal purposes. Jon Aars, a polar bear expert at the Norwegian Polar Institute, said there is always an unlikely possibility of a fatality due to numerous factors involving the individual animal and circumstances.