The Norwegian Polar Institute is now well over halfway through an expedition that was supposed to be the first major census of polar bears from Svalbard to Franz Josef Land in 11 years. But Svalbardposten reported in July the researchers had not received permission to conduct the census in Russia and the project was therefore scaled back to include only polar bear on the Norwegian side of the Barents Sea.
The Embassy of Russia in Oslo is now rejecting the claim that the application was denied.
"Information in Norwegian mass media that Russian authorities allegedly refused to give permission to conduct the survey is not correct," wrote Andrey Kulikov, an embassy spokesman, in an e-mail.
In addition to the e-mail, he provided a letter on behalf of the embassy listing a number of measures Russia has taken to preserve polar bears.
Norway and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding in February for the joint research cruise aboard the RV Lance. The Norwegian government allocated 10 million kroner for the project – which Russian scientists were scheduled to participate in – with the goal of obtaining a picture of the so-called Barents Sea population's development.
Estimates of the polar bear population in the Barents Sea are highly uncertain, varying between 1,850 and 3,400 individuals. However, there have been major changes in the sea ice conditions since the previous survey in 2004 that may have influenced the species' development. Norwegian Polar Institute are hoping to clarify such questions.
The Russian embassy declined to answer questions about whether the researchers would have received permission to conduct the survey on the Russian side if the application had arrived earlier.
Svalbardposten also asked if a corresponding count will be conducted on the Russian side during the next couple of years as requested by some officials, including Jon Aars, a polar bear researcher for the Norwegian Polar Institute. The hope is that such a count within a relatively short interval will allow the results to be combined.
The Russian embassy's e-mail states such a process takes time and the hope is to carry out a count.
"The request from the expedition organizers is still under evaluation by the respective Russian ministries and agencies," Kulikov wrote. "As with Norway, the procedure for approval of such projects in Russia is regulated and takes a certain time. We are confident that the Norwegian-Russian cooperation in this area will have a good result and that they will soon be able to conduct an accurate count on both sides of the border."
Russia takes polar bear conservation seriously, he added, noting two years ago the country increased the penalty for hunting, husbandry and selling of red-listed animals to up to seven years in prison, and emphasized that it is in effect particularly for polar bears.
Regarding the Norwegian Polar Institute's application, he wrote:
"According to Russian legislation, it takes some time to process such a project. But it also has a separate process for such arrangements in Norway. It is clear that one should keep in mind this circumstance when planning and preparing for this type of expedition."
The Norwegian census is scheduled to conclude in late August. The count using the Lance has been hampered by poor weather at the ice edge north of Svalbard, but Aars said they at least've done the areas of the archipelago scheduled.
"We will cover the last part of Edgeøya today," Aars told Svalbardposten shortly before the newspaper went to press Wednesday.
The research team will return to Longyearbyen on Thursday evening or Friday morning, where the Lance will be replaced by the Norwegian Coast Guard's Svalbard icebreaker. The researchers and vessels will then return to the ice edge where participants will keep their fingers crossed for better counting conditions.
"We still have much work remaining there, but if we get three days of good weather we will have done everything we should," said Aars, adding the change of vessel was planned throughout.
"That's because there is someone else who will have the Lance," he said. "We have the KV Svalbard until Sept. 1."
The bear observations have so far gone as expected.
"We have not seen anything that is surprising," Aars said. "In some places there are many bears, elsewhere there are few. But what the numbers say ultimately, it is impossible to say anything about now."
Translated by Mark Sabbatini