Polar bear take (Ursus maritimus)

A polar bear on an ice floe. The polar bear's reflection can be seen on the ocean surface.
Photo: Ann Kristin Balto / Norwegian Polar Institute

Polar bears used to be hunted extensively in Svalbard, but the species has been totally protected since 1973. Few are now killed. Polar bears killed after 1973 have mainly been shot. In exceptional cases bears are killed for humane reasons or because they pose a danger to life or property. In rare cases polar bears have died due to complications during tagging or research. The hunting statistics from before the protection was enacted show the significant scale of the hunting.

What is being monitored?

Total bear bag and takes of polar bears after their protection in 1973

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Polar bears are occasionally euthanized in self-defence or in agreement with the Governor near the settlements if they pose a risk to people or may damage property. Injured or sick polar bears are occasionally shot for humane reasons. All such instances concern between 0 and 9 bears a year. The number has been slightly increasing in recent years. As a general principle, bears which constitute a problem are chased away or removed, and euthanizing is always the last resort. In a few cases, groups of tourists, researchers and students have been moved. In 2016, four bears were euthanized: Two bears were euthanized in self-defence. A female bear died when she by accident was wounded, and her cub was euthanized for human reasons.

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The polar bear bag used to be so large that the population was greatly reduced in numbers and range. Between 600 and 900 bears were taken some years, and both sexes and all age groups were involved. The bag was highest in eastern Svalbard. The population has grown since the protection was enacted in 1973. Females with cubs-of-the-year are now seen in parts of Vest-Spitsbergen where they were not present prior to the protection enactment.

Status and trend

The number of polar bears killed increased greatly in 1871–1910. Pelts were in great demand, the intensity in the hunting grew, and the methods used gradually became more efficient. Increasing use of spring-gun boxes and the employment of dog teams to inspect them made the winter hunting more efficient. Polar bears were also shot in the pack ice in summer. Orphaned cubs were caught and sent to the mainland to be sold to zoos. Live cubs began to be caught as early as the 1870s, but only in small numbers (0–2 a year). 1909, when 31 cubs were caught, was an exception. The practice ceased after 1967, when 4 cubs were caught.

The bag declined after 1910, but new peak years occurred just before and after 1920, when upwards of 900 bears were taken annually for a few years. After the Second World War, the annual bag varied between 200 and 500.

The first polar bear safaris were organised for wealthy trophy hunters as early as the 1920s. This form of hunting increased after the Second World War until the polar bear was protected in 1973, but it declined greatly in the final years partly due to limitations being introduced, but also because the population was severely reduced.

Since 1973, bears have only been shot in self-defence, for the sake of safety, due to the risk of damage to property or for humane reasons. The number has varied from none (in 1997, 1999 and 2012) to 9 (in 1987). Since 2004, only 0–2 bears have been shot annually, except for 2013, when 3 bears were killed. In rare cases polar bears have died due to complications during tagging or reseach.

Causal factors

The hunting statistics illustrate the increasing efficiency of the hunting due to a rise in the number of hunters, a few of whom became polar bear specialists. The best-known hunter was Henry Rudi, who alone killed 713 polar bears. Polar bear pelts fetched a good price and both pelts and live cubs were in demand. The use of spring-gun boxes and dog teams made the hunting more efficient, and snowmobiles came into use in the mid-1960s, which saved time during the hunting, but the bag did not grow.

Following the total protection in 1973, the polar bear bag has become unpredictable, but very low. It depends on where and how often people encounter polar bears, under which circumstances and whether dangerous situations arise and people feel threatened.

The threshold applied by the Governor to permit the shooting of polar bears which appear unexpectedly close to the settlements, or temporarily settle there, has also varied down the years.

Consequences

The hard taxation of polar bears before they were protected led to a severe decline in the population. Theoretically, a strong polar bear population should tolerate an annual taxation of up to 5% without being reduced in the long term. The taxation after the Second World War probably far exceeded the annual growth and the population was greatly reduced. The total population was unknown, but it is assumed that the annual bag in that period was not sustainable and far exceeded the 5% level.

The total protection was introduced in time to save the Norwegian-Russian polar bear population in the Barents Sea.

Now, the biggest challenge for this population is climate change with the consequent reduction in the ice cover in the Polar Basin and around Svalbard. Changes in the occurrence of its prey, particularly ringed seals and bearded seals, are a consequence of this. More difficult access to key denning areas like Hopen and Kong Karls Land also gives cause for concern.

Even though there are no reliable figures for the polar bear population when the protection was enacted, which can be compared with the figures from the census in 2004 (between 1900 and 3600 polar bears), it is reasonable to believe that the population in and around Svalbard has had a positive trend after being totally protected.

The polar bear population in the East Greenland–Svalbard–Franz Josef Land area was estimated to number approximately 1500–2500 in 1967–1970. This uncertain estimate had a completely different basis than the census in 2004.

About the monitoring

The reason for monitoring the polar bear bag is the former widespread hunting carried out in the area.

The hunting statistics from before 1973 give a good basis for understanding why the population was low and its range limited before the protection was enacted.

The number of bears killed annually after 1973 can give an idea of the scale of chance confrontations between polar bears and people in Svalbard. This may reflect the trend in the number of tourists, scientists, etc. visiting areas frequented by polar bears, but also indicates the trend in the population, people’s knowledge about polar bears and which safety precautions have been taken.

Places and areas

Relations to other monitoring

Monitoring programme
International environmental agreements
Voluntary international cooperation
Related monitoring