Expert: We made the first approach to counting polar bears

Expert: We made the first approach to counting polar bears

1 August 2018

Ilya Mordvintsev, a senior research associate of the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences, describes what makes studying polar bears difficult, how they adapt to changing conditions and why the world’s largest land predators should not be fed by people.


How do you tag polar bears?


Ilya Mordvintsev: We use different tagging methods. During our latest expedition on Yamal, we used a helicopter. This is the most effective but also the most expensive method. It is effective because it allows us to study a large area. We don’t have to pursue polar bears for a long time and can quickly immobilise them. Then we monitor their behaviour and adjust their movements till they fall fast asleep.


There are also other methods, like catching over bait or tagging from vehicles.


How do you monitor polar bears?


Ilya Mordvintsev: Polar bears are an indicator of the condition of the Arctic ecosystems amid climate change and human impact. Watching their movements, we see how they are adapting to changes.


At one time, bears stayed in one area, but then they abruptly changed the direction of their movements and started choosing other types of ice. Analysing this with satellite photos of the ice cover, we will be able to establish when polar bears began to adapt to the environmental changes.


In the process, we are also trying to study the impact of human factors on the condition of polar bears so as to suggest conservation measures.


Why was it impossible to put collars on female bears on Yamal?


Ilya Mordvintsev: We spent two seasons on Bely Island and monitored polar bears all the time, practically every day. They were moving along the coast all the time. We had no vehicles there, and the animals passed between us and the shore. If they got tranquilised, they could go out into the water and die. This is completely ruled out in our work methods.


So watching from five to twelve polar bears on Bely Island during two seasons, we could not immobilise a single animal.  


 In 2017, we also flew over Yamal’s eastern and western coast. The period was chosen to match the previous years. However, spring came to these areas rather late, and the island’s coast was still covered by ice. There were no open water spaces where the bears could hunt, and we didn’t encounter a single animal although we flew by helicopter there.


How do you count the polar bear population?

Ilya Mordvintsev: All we managed to do this year is to make a first approach to counting polar bears in the Kara Sea. We flew on a single-engine airplane from the Pechora Sea (from Novaya Zemlya and Vaigach) to Sterligov Bay (near Novaya Zemlya). Our researchers mapped routes along the fast ice edge in order to count polar bears.


This was our first experience in using a single-engine airplane for counting polar bears in a large area. We need to use aviation for this, but we lack it. Plus this work also requires serious financial spending.


Of course, we would like to launch a polar bear aerial survey from Franz Josef Land to Severnaya Zemlya (Northern Land) along the fast ice edge when the ice cover is at its minimum extent, that is, sometime in September. This is when the most polar bears gather on the edge of drifting ice.


What polar bear populations – from the Kara-Barents seas, the Laptev Sea or Chukotka-Alaska – do expeditions primarily study?


Ilya Mordvintsev: We study all polar bear populations, but the Chukotka-Alaska animals are the most important group for us.


There is a Russia-US polar bear agreement that is aimed at studying and preserving this population. The research group and the joint commission meet annually. Experts discuss the condition of the Chukotka-Alaska population and draft approaches to its conservation.


Special attention is paid to setting the polar bear hunting quota for the indigenous peoples of Alaska and Chukotka.


At the sessions of the working research group, the American indigenous people favour an increase in this quota. The Americans believe that the population is stable and even growing.


In May 2016, the Russians and Americans jointly counted seals in the Chukchi Sea. The Americans were flying over their side, and the Russians studied the Russian waters of the Chukchi Sea. In parallel they also counted polar bears. So, now we have information on the number of polar bears practically on the entire Russian side of the Chukchi Sea in April and May. The Americans have not yet submitted their information. Once both parties present it, we will be able to determine the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population with certainty.


Relying on the received data, Russia does not object to equal quotas for both parties, but Russian laws prohibit the hunting of polar bears in Chukotka. This issue has not yet been resolved by the Russian government.


Therefore, our researchers are reluctant to increase this quota.


Has climate change affected the diet of polar bears?


Ilya Mordvintsev: Polar bears are the biggest predators on Earth. Depending on the situation, they change their behaviour and certainly their diet. In normal conditions, polar bears behave like fully fledged predators.


But when they remain ashore for some reason, where they cannot catch sea mammals, like eared and bearded seals, they have to adapt.


In recent years, we have seen that polar bears fail to follow the ice. Mostly these are young animals but also female bears with cubs. In such conditions, these predators began to eat bird eggs (especially those of the goose family and water fowl), nestlings and lemmings.


When they cannot get such food, they try to find the remains of sea mammals and fish ashore. If they don’t find any, they switch to marine vegetation, such as driftweed. Sometimes they have to eat regular grass. To sum up, polar bears search for anything eatable.


This is a problem. Searching for food in areas where people live and work, polar bears are increasingly often wandering into towns.


Recently, much attention was paid to the problems of relations between humans and polar bears.


But people often start feeding polar bears.


Ilya Mordvintsev: Feeding polar bears is primarily harmful for people and secondly, to the bears. Having once received food, they will return to this place, and eventually people will be unable to cope with this. Even if they manage to oust polar bears themselves or using some equipment, the predators will remember that people have food. Roaming in the Arctic, polar bears will definitely find people with food which they have already tried.


Therefore, we put signs everywhere that say feeding polar bears of any age and in any condition is strictly prohibited. By feeding them, you are inflicting much harm on them rather than doing something good.