Translated by Mark Sabbatini
Many residents and visitors had the pleasure this past winter of sighting a mother bear patrolling ice in Tempelfjorden with three little balls of fluff in tow.
The seals were bulging on the ice and the mother was s a skilled hunter. Her cubs fattened up nicely before they headed north during the spring.
First to Billefjorden, then Austefjord, Wijdefjorden, eastward to Nordaustlandet and then to the ice edge where the family wandered about during then summer.
During the fall she set out determinedly over Nordaustlandet in almost a straight line back to Tempelfjorden
She lost two of her cubs during the long journey. When and where it happened is not known.
"She only has one cub again," said Jon Aars, a polar bear researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute, while confirming the mother is back in Tempelfjorden.
"I have colleagues who have seen her out there; in addition to that we have followed the tracking from her collar," he said.
Deaths are common
It's not unexpected she lost one or more of the litter. Triplet births are generally very uncommon among polar bears and having all the cubs survive in such instances happens only occasionally.
"I've only seen one case of a female bear with three year-olds," Aars said. "It is very rare that they can do it. Usually one of them perishes pretty quickly."
Hunger is the leading cause of death for polar bear cubs during their first year.
Unlike other animals, the mother won't give priority to a particular cub if resources are scarce, but let them fight it out among themselves.
"There is an internal battle between the cubs to get the best place and the most milk," Aars said.
The mother bear, "baptized" N26018, is more than 20 years old and has had triplets at least once before, most recently in April 2011 when she was first sedated, registered and tagged on the east coast of Spitsbergen.
That litter also ended with only one survivor.
"There is little to gain from having three," Aars said.
Returning to the feast
That the mother and surviving child are back in Tempelfjorden is not surprising.
During the winter a rich feast lay strewn about the ice and, with those lavish memories still fresh, it's natural for the mother to return, Aars said.
"I was not sure when she would come back, but I thought that it would happen," he said. "They are happy to come back to the same areas year after year. I would think that now she will remain there until next spring. Then we will see whether she heads north again."
There have been a number of bear sightings in the area during the fall.
While Madam N26018 reigned mostly alone this past winter, there should not be any significant problems if more individuals now settle in the same area.
"There is room for a number of bears in there," Aars said.
Must wait until Christmas
The Norwegian Polar Institute conducted this year what should have been the first large polar bear census in the Barents Sea since 2004. But it did not go as hoped.
First, the Russians said "nyet "to cooperating, meaning the population on the Russian side couldn't be counted.
Then inhospitable weather hit and prevented a thorough analysis at the ice edge.
That complicates and delays efforts to come up with a fresh estimate of the number of bears in the Barents population, which in 2004 was estimated at between 1900 to 3600 bears.
"Things were a little harder than they could have been if we had been more fortunate with the weather," Aars said. "We will look at the data in detail starting in November and we hope to have things ready by Christmas."