A female polar bear with an ear tag that the Governor of Svalbard's coastal cleanup cruise came across was snagged in a 170-kilogram fishing net. The bear ripped itself free from the ear tag and the net as governor's helicopter approached the animal and stressed it out.
Svalbardposten has received multiple comments from people who are critical about the tagging of polar bears. «Hd the bear not been abused with the tag this would have gone fine» and «can humans stop the tagging of animals and destroying them for life» are two of the comments from Facebook.
The majority of newspaper readers responding to last week's online survey stated they want an end to ear tagging, or that they want more stringent requirements for the design of the ear tags.
Apologetic for the incident
Jon Aars, a polar bear researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute, said it is sad the she-bear got stuck.
«It's good that it ended as it did, that the bear broke itself loose,» he said. «We do not know what would have happened if the helicopter had not arrived, but it would probably have gotten free by itself anyway.»
The researcher said it may seem strange the bear did not rip off the net sooner, but it does not surprise him that it took some time.
«The polar bear laid itself down and waited until something happened,» he said. «Such behavior has been observed in polar bears captured in foot snares. If it had been hungry or desperate enough, I think it would have freed itself.»
Aars said he does not think the bear dragged the net by the ear.
«Had it done so, it would have probably come free earlier,» he said. «It had probably taken the net its its mouth.»
One previous episode
Aars said he has only heard of one previous episode where a polar bear was stuck in something. It was in 2004, and it was unclear why and how the bear had gotten trapped. As with this summer's episode, the polar bear freed itself when governor's helicopter was about to stun and help it.
«I've never heard that a bear is stuck and did not get loose again,» Aars said. «This is an ear tag that is used to tag polar bears throughout the Arctic. I do not know of similar incidents from other areas. But as they get more garbage it increases the likelihood that the animals can get caught in something.»
He said has not seen bears with torn ears as a result of tags that have gotten stuck.
Polar bears tagged by the Norwegian Polar Institute have a microchips in the neck, a tattoo on the lip and a tag in each ear.
«Bears lose ear tags, tattoos are not always readable and microchips are sometimes broken,» Aars said. «If we capture a bear after 20 years, it will not necessarily be possible to recognize all the methods, but in any case at least one of them or a combination of them.»
He also emphasized the data from recaptures is very valuable for researchers.
Is there still a necessity for two ear tags?
«It increases the chance that at least one is there when we find the bear again,» Aars said.
Will assess the risk
The female bear that got entangled on the west side of Sorgfjorden had a geological measurement device in the ear tag that got jammed in the net.
«There is a small disk that measures light and temperature,» Aars said. «It can tell where the bear was and whether it has been hibernating or not. It will provide a lot of valuable additional information.»
The ear tags are filtered to make room for the small disk. They should therefore not be larger than ordinary tags. It should not be more likely that a tag with a geological measurement device snags compared with a conventional ear tag.
Are the ear tags made so they will release from the ear, should it get stuck?
«I don't think it has been predicted that this would be a problem,» Aars said. «The tags attach solidly so that you can try to avoid having them fall off easily. We need to discuss whether there is a risk that this could happen again. It may be that we can change a little on the disk on the back of the tag and tolerate a greater loss of disks.»
He has not yet downloaded the data from the chip that was attached to their female bear's ear.
«What we do know is that it is a tag from 2011 and that it is an adult female bear,» he said.