Polar bear take (Ursus maritimus)
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?
Cite these dataThe Governor of Svalbard (2021). Number of polar bears killed since 1973. Environmental monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen (MOSJ). URL: http://www.mosj.no/en/influence/hunting-trapping/polar-bear-bag.html
|Number of polar bears||The Governor of Svalbard||4||3||3||3||3||6||4||1||4||6||4||2||3||9||7||2||3||1||4||6||2||8||1||0||5||0||4||2||5||3||5||1||1||1||2||2||2||1||0||3||0||1||4||0||1||0||4|
Cite these dataThe Governor of Svalbard (2021). Number of polar bears hunted till 1973. Environmental monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen (MOSJ). URL: http://www.mosj.no/en/influence/hunting-trapping/polar-bear-bag.html
|Hunted polar bears||The Governor of Svalbard||74||28||69||110||82||103||65||110||102||55||55||74||55||211||146||142||254||156||339||220||258||228||327||234||250||261||466||554||435||372||277||350||373||431||638||644||888||659||696||511||250||216||250||285||294||311||229||390||662||578||175||218||550||901||598||281||370||528||474||441||127||218||224||152||221||406||540||245||148||151||11||4||1||195||405||523||444||304||538||374||152||347||209||470||341||308||160||334||173||126||177||310||436||435||173||263||267||346||515||116||61||41|
All instances of polar bears killed in alleged self-defence or for humane reasons must be reported to the Governor, who keeps a separate database for such cases. The number of bears euthanised is reported to MOSJ annually.
Very few polar bears are killed in Svalbard, and the reporting is regarded as reliable.
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 euthanized, and in 2016 and 2020 where 4 polarbears where euthanized. In rare cases polar bears have died due to complications during tagging or reseach.
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.
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