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'Leave them alone'

Curious: The female polar bear and her three cubs are living in the area of Tempel- and Billefjorden. FOTO: Marcel Schütz / Spitzbergen Reise

'Leave them alone'

The Governor of Svalbard has received several reports of people 'stretching the rubber band' to see polar bear families.

The governor for a second time is urging people not to disturb the polar bear families in the Billefjorden and Tempelfjorden areas. The young cubs are in a vulnerable phase and should not be disturbed while their mothers hunt seals on the ice.

Nevertheless, some snowmobile riders are "stretching the rubber band" and moving closer to the bears than they should, according to people Svalbardposten has talked to. Lt. Gov. Jens Olav Sæther confirms they have been notified of such incidents.

"We have received reports from people who have responded to this," Sæther said. "But how big the scope is, we do not know. The area is large."

'I saw you'
Police patrols have been paying attention during the past month. According to the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act, it is prohibited to seek out and disturb polar bears.

"It is illegal to drive up towards polar bears, even if one does not believe that some see you," wrote Longyearbyen resident Vide Brandt on the Facebook group "Ris, Ros & Info Longyearbyen" after a tour of the area last week.

"I saw you. Speak up the next time you are going on a trip and ye shall borrow binoculars."

"You represent everything that is wrong with the snowmobiling culture in Svalbard."

Another eyewitness Svalbardposten talked to described a similar situation.

"I think people should be well aware of what is allowed and not," said Sæther, adding he believes it is important to focus on the issue.

"We have received good feedback in that we are supervising the areas," he said.

Very vulnuerable
Thor Larsen, a biologist who is a veteran in polar bear research and fieldwork in Svalbard, said it's extremely important to keep a distance from the families during this period.

"For a female with cubs, it is essential to leave them alone," he said. "They have just come out of the den. She is emaciated and all of her is time spent on building up reserves."

"At worst, you risk splitting up the family," he said. "In that case the kids get left behind and lost."

Larsen said distance limits also apply to single animals in the field.

"If they are chased they quickly get overheated," he said. "In addition, you risk triggering an attack if you get too close."

As with Brandt, he urges people to buy a good pair of binoculars to use in the field.

"The moral is: keep your distance and enjoy them at distance," he said.

'Very unusual with three cubs'

The family in the picture is a rarity.

One of females residing in the area of Billefjorden and Tempelfjorden has three kids. That is very rare, according to polar bear expert Thor Larsen.

"When I worked in the field we registered an average of around two cubs," he said. "Some had one and most two. Of the hundreds of observations we saw three cubs only a four, five times."

That they now find themselves in this area also suggests that they are born on the west side of Spitsbergen.

"That is is also unusual," Larsen said. "Most are born on the north and east sides."


Translated by Mark Sabbatini


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