Svalbard ptarmigan bag (Lagopus muta hyperborea)

Svalbard ptarmigan
Photo: Stein Ø. Nilsen / Norwegian Polar Institute

The bag of Svalbard ptarmigan is monitored as part of the effort to ensure that the hunting will not have negative effects on the population. The Svalbard ptarmigan is the only terrestrial species of birds that is resident in Svalbard. Most of the hunting takes place in Nordenskiöld Land. The Svalbard ptarmigan is by far the most attractive small game species, and between 250 and 300 hunters hunt ptarmigan each year. Apart from a substantial bag taken by a few professional hunters and some local people, most hunters shoot only a few birds.

What is being monitored?

Number of ptarmigans shot in Svalbard

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The figure presents the bag of Svalbard ptarmigan based on reports from hunters. The proportion of hunters submitting reports varied in the 1990s, but after 2001 it has been close to or 100%. Since the millenium, 2004, 2005, and especially 2007 and 2015 can be defined as good years with large bags. After 2007 the number of ptarmigan shot declined, but then increased again after 2012. This is probably due to a temporary decline followed by an increase in the stock in the areas around Isfjorden where hunting is allowed. From 2015 the number shot has decreased. The numbers also includes bags taken by professional hunters. There are no signs of periodic, cyclic variation in the stock.

Status and trend

Reporting of hunting success was introduced in 1997, but the response was poor for the first few years. However, since 2001, the feedback has varied between 74 and 100%. Since 1999, residents (except those registered as professional hunters) have had a bag limit of 10 ptarmigan per day, whereas visiting hunters have had a bag limit of 5 ptarmigan per season. The ptarmigan bag has varied a great deal from year to year. The extremes were a record low of 486 shot in 2006 and as many as 2069 the year after (2007).

During the monitoring period, 2002, 2006, 2009 and 2011 stand out as poor years. The hunting statistics show that fewer than 700 ptarmigan were shot in 2011 and 2012, whereas 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005 and particularly 2007 and 2015 stand out as years with large bags. In all these years (except 2004), the bag dropped significantly the following year, although this cannot be explained as an effect of the large bag. From 2012 the number of ptarmigans shot increased steadily to a maximum in 2015. Since then the number shot has entered a negative trend.

Causal factors

Ptarmigan can be hunted for a long period, from 10 September to 23 December, but most are shot before the polar night begins at the end of October. Very few residents succeed in filling their bag limit of 10 ptarmigan per day.

In some years, the total bag is greatly influenced by the bag achieved by the professional hunters, since that is also included in the statistics. For instance, in 2009, a single professional hunter was responsible for 45% of the total bag. It has to be expected that the bag will largely reflect the stock in the Isfjorden area and central Spitsbergen.

It is well known that populations of gallinaceous species can vary considerably in size. The cyclic fluctuations known in willow grouse and ptarmigan populations in mainland Norway have not been recognised in Svalbard ptarmigan. This might be viewed as reflecting the absence of naturally occurring populations of small rodents or specialist predators like gyr falcons in Svalbard. However, a great deal suggests that the population dynamics of all the species wintering in Svalbard – Svalbard reindeer, Svalbard ptarmigan, southern vole and arctic fox – vary and are influenced by climate-related events like rainy weather in winter. Grazing that is covered with ice results in higher mortality and poorer production of offspring, due to less food being available. The reduction in the three populations of herbivores is perfectly synchronous and coincides with rainy winters. Such conditions occurred in the winters of 2001–2002, 2005–2006 and 2011–2012 and the hunting bag was low in the following autumns.

Consequences

Many landowners on the mainland have also introduced day bag limits for ptarmigan. In Svalbard, it seems that the day quotas do not actually limit the bag of ptarmigan taken by residents. Their day quota is so high that very few hunters fill it before they have to end their hunting.

Probably, neither the bag limit nor the length of the open season limits the bag taken. This seems to be limited to a greater degree by the availability of ptarmigan in easily accessible areas around Longyearbyen, weather and travelling conditions (snow), the decreasing length of daylight and the keenness and skill of the hunters. This relationship should be examined more closely when hunting reports are scrutinised.

A recent study from Svalbard has used old data from a harvesting experiment and examined how the ptarmigan population responds demographically (age, gender and body weight) to hunting mortality and whether the breeding density is influenced by hunting. The study showed a surplus of both cocks and hens, and that shooting in spring had no effect on the breeding density. Excess birds in the population offer a possibility for harvesting the surplus as compensation for other mortality.

That the spring shooting showed no effect on the breeding density and both genders became rapidly re-established also indicated that the Svalbard ptarmigan population is limited by territorial behaviour and/or lack of good breeding habitats.

Research has also confirmed that Svalbard ptarmigan can move long distances in the autumn, but most of the hunting bag normally seems to be taken before this movement starts, that is the hunting mostly takes place on the local population that has bred in the area. Processing hunting reports should be able to confirm this. The exception may be hunting performed by some professional hunters.

The annual monitoring of cock density shows that Svalbard ptarmigan normally are found in low densities (up to 4 cocks/km2) with little variation from year to year, and availability of good breeding habitats can be a limitation for the population. The annual monitoring data so far show no negative trend in the density of cocks which breed in spring.

With our current knowledge, we consider it to be ecologically justifiable to harvest from the surplus of ptarmigan with the present-day intensity. It is, nevertheless, important to stress that to be able to put a more reliable figure on the harvesting level for Svalbard ptarmigan, knowledge is lacking regarding the productivity, recruitment and survival of the birds. These are important demographic parameters which may affect the number of surplus birds that are available for hunting.

The present environment, with rapid climatic changes, may give the ptarmigan new challenges which need to be taken into account when the future harvesting level and quotas are to be evaluated. Quantitative population and harvesting models for Svalbard ptarmigan that take into account climate change should therefore be developed to ensure future, justifiable ecological harvesting.

About the monitoring

The Svalbard ptarmigan, a sub-species of the ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) in mainland Norway, is the only herbivorous land-inhabiting bird which resides in the archipelago throughout the year. From a research and management point of view, it is an interesting species with special ecological and physiological adaptation.

Knowledge on its' biology and total population is unfortunately limited despite recent research on migration routes, for example.

There is a great need to monitor the stock and intensify research. Common to all huntable species in Svalbard is that the total bag is low compared to the assumed total population. The Svalbard ptarmigan is the species hunted in by far the largest numbers. The total bag, mainly taken in Nordenskiöld Land, varies with the hunting effort and the availability of ptarmigan from year to year.

Places and areas

Relations to other monitoring

Monitoring programme
International environmental agreements
Voluntary international cooperation
Related monitoring