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 Close encounters with polar bears can become more frequent

Last Wednesday a polar bear took a walk inside the city of Longyearbyen. FOTO: Line Nagell Ylvisåker

Close encounters with polar bears can become more frequent

On Wednesday morning, a polar bear wandered right up to the walls of residences along Vei 238.



Early Wednesday morning, Ingvild Sæbu Vatn received a message from a neighbor that there were polar bear tracks just outside her home at Vei 238-23b. She lives on the first floor of an apartment building facing Adventdalen and was able to take pictures of the tracks from the living room window.

What did she think about having a bear just outside the window?

"I think actually it's kind of funny, but then one thinks more about the bear being pretty close," she said. "I came home after a walk in town at night when it was dark. If the bear had wandered around at a different time it would not haven taken much for me to encounter it. It was better to have it at a little bit of a distance."

Was shaken
Eva Therese Jenssen also lives in a house the polar bear visited.

"First, I saw that there were many cars parked at the dog kennels and that a coal truck was standing still," she said. "Then I heard signal pistol shots and thought they sounded close by. I looked out the window and saw polar bear tracks just outside the apartment."

Jenssen said she was a little shaken by the thought the bear had just been outside.

"I was out last night and got home at 11:30 p.m.," she said. "It is unpleasant to think that maybe the bear was close already then. It gave a little shock to me."

The Governor of Svalbard was notified at about 7:30 a.m. the polar bear was at the kennels between Longyearbyen Hundeklubb and Svalbard Villmarkssenter. Officials responding frightened the polar bear with the signal shots and followed it by helicopter to Mälardalen, which is where it was when Svalbardposten went to press Wednesday night.

"People must be look out for themselves and be observant wherever they go," said Trond Olsen, a police chief inspector for the governor.

Bears in town
There have been several incidents of bears near Longyearbyen this fall. Last week's issue of Svalbardposten also reported a polar bear entered the hotel in Pyramiden and in August students from the Arctic Nature Guide program were forced to evacuate the camp they had on a moraine at Nordenskiöldbreen because of a bear that could not be scared away.

Jon Aars, a polar bear researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute, said he believes locals will have to get used to having polar bears in the vicinity.

"People who have lived in Longyearbyen know that it was highly unusual to see bears near or in the city back in time," he said. "Now there is something going on. We are also seeing that when we are out, and not least of all from the reports we get, that there are more bears in Isfjorden. We think it's something we must expect is coming."

The polar bear researcher said he thinks the increasing number of bears is primarily because of the length of time since polar bears in Svalbard were declared a protected species. That happened in 1973 and bears are now returning to areas where they were shot out when hunting was allowed.

At the same location
There is a natural explanation for why it has taken so long for the bears to come back.
"Genetic studies show that bears do the same thing same thing and remain in areas over several generations," Aars said.

What causes animals to break the pattern?

"If there is an increase in the number of bears in an area, it may be that some think that they will try something else," Aars said. "It can also be caused by changes in conditions. For example, the bears have had bad conditions in Woodfjorden for a few years, and some are thinking that they should go down the west coast and see how it is there. And then they think 'I will do again next year because it worked better than I did last year.'"

He added young animals also tend to try something different than their parents.

'There will be more coming'
He said he believes there will be more bears in Isfjorden in the coming years and in total there are more bears in Svalbard now than there were around 1970.

"When we first see bears in an area, we can assume that there is a trend that will continue if nothing happens in the area which is to the disadvantage of the animals," Aars said.

If there is little ice, there may be more hungry bears. Then there will be a greater chance of encounters between polar bears and people.

"Bears that break into cabins I think we are going to see more of," Aars said.
Many experts have noted climate change may lead to fewer polar bears. If the climate has an effect, the total number of bears will decline.

"But if there are fewer bears in the Barents Sea in ten years it does not necessarily mean there will be fewer on the west coast of Spitsbergen, Aars said.

Medium-sized bear

Eigil Movik, the governor's senior nature management advisor, said it is difficult to determine the age and sex of the bear that visited the city this week.

"But it seems to be a medium-sized bear," he said.

Officials with the governor's office did not see any tags from researchers on the bear.

(Translation: Mark Sabbatini)

Se bildet større

This picture is taken from the apartment where Ingvild Sæbu Vatn is living. The track are less than a meter away from the window. FOTO: Ingvild Sæbu Vatn

Se bildet større

Jon Aars, reseracher at the Norwegian Polar Institute. FOTO: Christian Nicolai Bjørke

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