Polar bear “census” planned for 2015

Polar bear “census” planned for 2015

21 November 2014

In August 2015, polar bears living in the Russian Arctic National Park will be counted by Russian scientists in conjunction with their Norwegian colleagues.


The last count on the Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land archipelagos, as well as on Chukotka and in Alaska, was done in 2004. 2650 animals were counted from the air.


“New counts are planned for 2015,” says Maria Gavrilo, deputy director for research at the Russian Arctic National Park. “They will encompass the northern part of the Barents Sea – from Spitsbergen in the east to Franz Josef Land along the entire ice edge. This is where the animals live. As in 2004, monitoring will be conducted from the air. This will give us an opportunity to compare the studies.”


Progressive methods were used 10 years ago, and it’s crucial that the same methodology be used at the same time of year, she stressed.


Scientists say that global warming and the melting of polar ice, the predator’s primary habitat, are the main threats to the species. According to some estimates, the ice cover has shrunk by 25 percent in recent years, resulting in the migration of seals, the bears’ main prey. Polar bears began to starve.


The situation is especially difficult in the north of Novaya Zemlya, Gavrilo says. In the past 10 years, a number of polar bears may have died of starvation or migrated to follow the seals. The count will help shed light on this.


Comment by Dr Nikita Ovsyanikov, biologist, independent expert on polar bears, Honored Polar Worker of Russia:


Aerial counts are not always reliable. The polar bear population is distributed rather unevenly on the ice floes, and the bears tend to move all the time. Therefore, extrapolations based on incomplete counts will not produce accurate results.


Maria Gavrilo is absolutely correct in saying that polar bear counts should cover the largest possible water areas, and that they should be conducted in line with previous methods. This will make it possible to compare the resulting data with previous counts. The counts, however, will not be entirely accurate, but rather an estimate of polar bear sightings in certain types of ice landscapes.


Regular counts should be conducted at least every three to four years in order to assess changing population trends. Population research, or long-term and detailed observations of polar bear populations, is needed to obtain more accurate data on their status. Data collected through invasive research, including satellite observations, repeat catches, etc., does not amount to population monitoring and is not a substitute for this process. Invasive research does not consider the so-called anxiety factor, but we realise that this factor plays a highly important role in the life of every animal, and that it influences their spatial distribution, etc.


(Photo © Viktor Nikiforov)

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