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'Females most often keep their distance'

Jon Aars, a polar bear researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute. FOTO: Line Nagell Ylvisåker

'Females most often keep their distance'

Jon Aars, a polar bear researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute, said he has not been involved in a similar incident previously.

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Aars has studied polar bears for decades and is considered one of Norway's foremost experts on the species.

He was the one who advised The Governor of Svalbard following the shooting of a mother bear at Austfjordneset on Monday, but he declined to comment on specifics of the incident, citing the interests of the investigation.

'Unusual'

The shooting in self-defense of a female bear who has a cub born that year is highly unusual. Aars said he is not aware of a similar incident in Svalbard or Alaska.

"One can never know how individual animals will behave when faced with people," he said. "Certainly all polar bears can potentially be deadly. That said, females with young cubs are not those most represented in self-defense statistics."

Bears shot in self-defense frequently are single or hungry old bears.

"Females with cubs most often keep their distance from people," Aars said. "If they do seek out people, it's often the cubs who do."

Zero chance
It was Aars who dismissed the cub's chance of surviving after his mother was shot at Austfjordneset.

"The chance that it would survive was nonexistent," he said. "If the mother was laying as she lay there, the cub would have remained at her side and starved to death. If the mother was taken away, it would wander and either be taken by another bear or starve to death."

Has the situation involved a two-year-old cub, Aars said he would not have ruled out the chances of its survival.

"But even then it would have been unlikely," he said. "We should remember that cubs often starve to death even if they are with their mothers. It is a very hard life they live."

Ethical question
Can a polar bear cub be given to a zoo if its fate in the wild is doom?

"Yes, that has happened elsewhere," Aars said. "In the old days it was primarily hunters that did that. But the governor has no agreement with any such institution, so far as I know."

He said there is also an ethical question about such an action.

"Many would argue that keeping the cub in captivity will also be animal abuse as well," he said. "It is an ethical debate that I, as a scientist, don't want to offer an opinion about."

13 years since the last
Stein P. Aasheim, who also applied to be a caretaker at Austfjordneset this season, was the last person to shoot a polar bear at the station. The trapper and journalist stayed there with his family during the winter of 2002-03. All of them had been on a sleigh excursion to check their traps, but Aasheim discovered a mess around the cabin when they returned. The family stood outside the door when he went around the cabin to see if a bear might have entered.

"When I came around a corner, I saw a bear that was coming in the window to the woodshed," he told Svalbardposten afterwards.

The rest of the family was standing just steps away from the bear, around the corner of the cabin. Aasheim got them inside and went to the woodshed, which is part of the main cabin. The animal was coming in and he saw no alternative except shooting it with the .44 caliber magnum revolver he was carrying.

The bear that had to be put to death was a male weighing 467 kilograms.

The case was dismissed by the governor because they decided there was not sufficient proof for a criminal case.

Translated by Mark Sabbatini.

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