Research

Polar Bear Facts: a Q & A

Updated September 27, 2016

The University of Alberta is aware of an image of a polar bear that was circulated online in the fall of 2015, speculated to be a bear from one of our research studies. From the start, we have taken this situation very seriously. Unfortunately, misinformation was circulated online. 

The Q&A that follows is intended to clarify some of the questions that have arisen, and will be updated as necessary. Jump to Q&A.


Interview with Andrew Derocher


Update September 27, 2016 (from Andrew Derocher)

1) To be clear, the intent was always that the collared bear be caught and the collar removed. Weather and ice conditions in autumn 2015 were such that it was impossible to do so at that time. Past experience with collared bears showed no harmful effects to a bear if the collar was not immediately removed. No polar bear has ever died from a collar. The plan, which was carried out, was to remove the collar if the bear was still wearing it in summer/autumn 2016.
2) The bear was originally collared in Canada as part of a project that was funded by the US government. Some bears in this population regularly move between the two countries, spending the winter and spring in Canada and the summer onshore in Alaska. Because the bear was in USA territory when sighted, removal of the collar had to be conducted by a US government agency (i.e., US Fish and Wildlife Service).
3) At the time of recapture, the bear was assessed by a veterinarian, no significant injury was found, and no medical treatment was necessary. The bear was released on site, recovered quickly, and has since been seen behaving normally, interacting with other bears, and feeding on whale carcasses.
4) This particular bear was collared when still growing because the study goal was to determine movement and dispersal patterns of young bears. My research program will not collar young polar bears in the future. This decision had been made many years ago after failure of the electronic release mechanism. The risk to the bears was deemed too high.
5) Advances in technology are facilitating the use of less invasive methods. In my research program, ear tag radios are now being used for bears that are growing or cannot wear a collar. Many people urge “non-invasive” research for polar bears and while this is a meaningful goal, obtaining the data necessary for effective management and conservation occasionally requires some level of invasiveness. Research of this nature is conducted within extensive government and university animal care and handling guidelines. All research conducted on polar bears at the University of Alberta is reviewed and approved by the University of Alberta BioSciences Animal Care and Use Committee which follows the Canadian Council on Animal Care guidelines. The University of Alberta in co-operation with government agencies endeavours to reduce the invasive handling of any bears.
6) Collaring of adult female polar bears is ongoing in the 5 polar bear nations (USA, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia). These projects are led by their respective government agencies. Collaring of adult females is safe because they are not growing and allowance on collar fit is made for changes in body condition. Collaring adult females is an effective means of obtaining data (e.g., movement patterns, habitat use, effects of climate change, reproductive rates) required to ensure the long-term conservation of polar bears. Collars are used on many species of large mammals, including grizzly bears, black bears, giant pandas, wolves, cougars, African lions, tigers, and cheetahs. The information provided by these collars is unavailable from other sources is key to their conservation.
7) Having spent more than 32 years studying polar bears, my respect and appreciation for the species has only increased. The last thing I would ever wish to do is harm a polar bear. My research is focused on understanding this magnificent animal with the goal of ensuring its long-term survival in the wild.

 

Update August 25, 2016

On August 10, 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) and US Geological Survey (USGS) received a report of a collared polar bear near Kaktovik, Alaska. A team was immediately deployed to assess the situation and obtained photographs suggesting this was possibly the collared male observed near the same location in autumn 2015. Staff from the USFWS, USGS, Environment and Climate Change Canada, North Slope Borough, a veterinarian, and members of the Kaktovik community were then assembled and caught the bear on August 22, 2016. The collar was removed and minor abrasions and localized skin irritation were noted. The veterinarian deemed the bear to be healthy and not in any distress. The bear recovered quickly from sedation and was released at the capture site. The animal was observed later feeding at the bowhead whale bone pile 4-5 hours after being immobilized, and was behaving normally.

On examination, the collar was found to have lost the transmission components and only the inner band of material remained. The aluminum nuts had fully corroded and small plastic washers were keeping the collar on the bear. The programmed release apparatus had not functioned properly. The manufacturer of the release has been apprised of the situation.

The University of Alberta remains fully committed to upholding the highest standards of animal care and welfare in accordance with the Canadian Council on Animal Care. Polar bear research at the University of Alberta follows these standards. Our research focuses on the conservation of polar bears and thus, we strive to ensure no injuries occur to study animals. The bear in question was collared as a subadult and following the failure of the release mechanisms to function properly, researchers at the University of Alberta will not collar subadult polar bears in the future.

 


 

Update July 28, 2016

 
 
Update July 12, 2016

 

No reports of the collared bear have been received by any of the agencies in the Beaufort Sea region or researchers at the University of Alberta. Reports from near Kaktovik, Alaska (location of the last sighting of the collared bear) are that 20-30 polar bears are in the general area. Strong site fidelity to summering areas and the attraction provided by the remains of subsistence harvested bowhead whales result in a large number of bears on land along the Alaskan coast each year. Few bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea populations summer on land or in Canada. Reports are that one adult female, with a telemetry collar, accompanied by a yearling, was signed near Kaktovik. This adult female has not been identified using the satellite collar (the collar is believed to be working). This collared bear is thought to have been collared by U.S. Geological Survey researchers in Alaska.

The University of Alberta remains fully committed to upholding the highest standards of animal care and welfare in accordance with the Canadian Council on Animal Care, which is "the national peer-review organization for setting, maintaining, and overseeing the implementation of high standards for animal ethics and care in science throughout Canada." Should the collared bear be sighted, a plan is in place with the appropriate agencies to undertake the required actions to remove the collar.

 


 

Update July 12, 2016

As of today, no new sightings or reports of the collared bear have been received in the United States or Canada. During meetings of the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group (June 7-11, 2016) in Anchorage, Alaska, discussions were held with staff of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and N.W.T. Environment and Natural Resources to ensure that plans are in place to assist the collared bear should it be seen over the coming months.

It is possible that the bear may return to the bowhead whale carcasses, remains from subsistence harvesting, because site fidelity is high in this population to this unusual food resource. It also remains likely that the collar has released or broken away, in which case, we would be unable to identify this individual even if it returns. Ice in the Beaufort Sea is far below average, which makes it likely that polar bears will return to land during the coming weeks.

Further to the Polar Bear Specialist Group meeting, a workshop was held by WWF in Anchorage to design a better polar bear tracking device.  Emphasis was placed on improving the design (e.g., reduced size, alternative attachment methods, and enhanced release mechanisms). Input from polar bear researchers, engineers, and Alaskan Indigenous people provided new insights and options for tracking of polar bears. The global design firm IDEO provided engineering and design input. For more details, see: https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/making-a-better-bear-tracker

The University of Alberta remains, as it has for decades, committed to upholding the highest standards of animal care and welfare. Funds have been identified for assisting in the capture of this bear if required, and we remain committed to assisting this individual bear should an opportunity and need arise to do so.


Update June 2, 2016

Field research in the Beaufort Sea has concluded for spring 2016 with no sighting of the collared bear. Sea ice in the Beaufort Sea is approximately 30% below normal this month. The challenging sea ice conditions made field work particularly difficult this year. To date, no reports have been received from subsistence hunters in the area where the bear might be expected. Plans are in place to ensure the bear can be caught, if it is still wearing the collar, should it be sighted on land in the summer.

In association with IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group, a meeting is planned between American and Canadian researchers for the week of June 6 in Anchorage, Alaska to ensure coordination of collar removal should the bear be sighted.

A workshop is planned for Anchorage, Alaska on June 12 to explore issues and options for remote monitoring of polar bears. Ongoing research at the University of Alberta is shifting to ear tag radios as required. These small units can provide some of the needed information on polar bear movements but have shorter lifespans (< 6 months) than collars.

Update May 4, 2016

Polar bear research crews from the US Geological Survey and the US Fish and Wildlife Service have been in the field off the coast of Alaska for the past month. Poor weather conditions and thin, fragmented sea ice have made for challenging conditions. So far, neither field crew has sighted the collared bear. From contacts on the Canadian side of the population, there have been no reports of any collared polar bears from Inuit hunters nor have any been taken in the subsistence hunt.

If the bear is seen, a plan is still in place to remove the collar. Given the rapid warming in the southern Beaufort Sea this spring, conditions are approaching a state where capture on sea ice would be unsafe (i.e., too little sea ice). If the bear returns to the whale carcasses on the coast of Alaska this summer, the plan is to remove the collar when it is safe to do so.

It is possible that the collar has been removed by the bear or that the release mechanisms have functioned. If this has occurred we will likely never know because signs of collaring typically disappear quickly after a collar is dropped making it difficult to identify the bear.


Update March 23, 2016

We remain concerned about the collared bear photographed at Katktovik in the autumn of 2015, and continue to take steps to find him and remove the collar. These steps include working with research teams in the area and funding the costs associated with sending a team to the location if the bear is sighted and removing the collar. 

Though Inuit hunters and local people were informed about the collared bear, there have been no new sightings of the bear since autumn 2015 just before the sea ice reformed. However, with the arrival of spring and longer days, research teams are now in the field.  The US Geological Survey polar bear research team is now working on the sea ice off the Alaskan coast.  They are currently working west of the last sighting but will move eastward over the coming month.  Another group of researchers further west from the US Fish and Wildlife Service will also be looking for this bear during their work.  Both teams are committed to removing the collar from the bear should they see it.  If the bear is seen in Canada, a team is on stand-by to fly to the location and remove the collar. Another possibility is that the bear returns to the whale carcasses during the summer and a team will travel to the area remove the collar.  Because the collar is not functioning, we cannot use it to locate the bear.

If the bear is not spotted during field research this spring, it may be because the collar released or the collar material broke down enough to fall off. Without the collar we would not have any way of identifying this bear from others.

The University of Alberta remains committed to upholding the highest standards of animal care in all research programs and to helping this bear should it still be wearing the collar.


Several of our researchers have devoted their careers to protecting polar bears for future generations and vehemently agree that this bear deserves every assistance effort possible. We share in the public’s concern for the welfare of this bear, and there is a plan in place to assist it and remove the collar.

Our researchers would never intentionally or knowingly do anything to harm a polar bear. They will not collar sub-adult bears in the future: this decision was made as soon as failure of the collar release technology was apparent. Their research is moving toward non-invasive methods as much as possible, as technology allows.  

Though the photo was posted on social media in mid-October, the university was not made aware of the situation until two weeks later. By this time, the bear had left the area where it was spotted in Alaska, and could have moved hundreds of kilometres away. Also, the collar is no longer transmitting, the bear is likely traveling on very thin sea ice, and there are nearly 24 hours of darkness in the region at this time making it impossible to search for the bear at this time.

The initial decision to not attempt to remove the collar was made by US and Canadian government officials, and the University of Alberta researchers were not informed until after the fact. As soon as our researchers were notified of the situation, they alerted organizations and communities in the North and asked that they contact the appropriate authorities if they spot a bear with a collar that appears tight. When that happens, the appropriate agency will remove the collar if conditions are safe for both the bear and the field staff.

Though the collar needs to be removed, it does not appear that the bear is being choked by the collar. The bear appears in good health and was behaving normally when last sighted. Our researchers have been shown other photos of the same bear feeding on bowhead whales left from subsistence hunting in the area. This is possibly the source of the red material around the collar, as other photos show no red material around the collar. Also, in the photos we have been shown, the bear appears to be in good health and was behaving normally. We cannot conclusively assess the health of the bear until the bear is caught and the collar removed.

Finding this bear and removing the collar requires the combined efforts of several agencies: we are in ongoing contact with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Northwest Territories, and Environment Canada. This assistance is now in place.


Polar bear health & safety

Q. What is being done to help the bear?

The University of Alberta and managers and biologists with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Northwest Territories and Environment Canada are committed to removing the collar when conditions are safe for both the bear and the field staff. We have alerted a wide range of communities and organizations in the North to the situation and asked that they contact the appropriate authorities if they spot a bear with a collar that appears tight. The U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife will be conducting a six-week spring field study on polar bears in the region and will attempt to visually locate the bear and remove the collar at that time. If the collar falls off between now and then, it will not be possible to identify the bear. If the bear is spotted in Canada, University of Alberta researchers will endeavour to remove the collar.


Q. Are you able to pursue an active search for the bear?

A search cannot be safely undertaken at this time. The bear is likely on thin sea ice far from the location where it was last seen. Polar bears can move over 20 km/day.  As well, there is almost no daylight at this time of year (i.e. helicopters cannot fly in the dark and reach the area where the bear is), and the collar has stopped transmitting location information. If the bear is seen and it is safe to do so, the appropriate agency will remove the collar.


Q. Why wasn’t the collar removed right away?

This was a decision made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and Environment Canada officials. Their decisions were based on the amount of daylight, the rapidly forming sea ice, and the the lack of recent sightings by local people. The University of Alberta was not involved in these discussions and was informed only after it was too late to mount a search while the bear was on land.  


Q. Is the bear in the photo in distress or imminent physical danger?

The bear can only be fully assessed once the collar is removed. However, contrary to comments on social media and based on the photos our researchers have seen, the bear is not being choked and looks healthy (i.e., is in very good body condition with significant amounts of body fat). It is interacting normally with other bears (e.g., playing with other bears). Based on other photos of the same bear, in which there is no red material around the collar, the colouring around the collar in the photo circulating online is possibly from the bear actively feeding on bowhead whale remains, which are leftover from Inupiat subsistence harvest.

Eventually, the collar will release on its own. While the bear does not appear to be in immediate physical danger, we do agree the collar should be removed. We will make every possible effort to do so given the challenging circumstances.

Collaring & tracking

Q. Who collared this bear?

After getting access to and reviewing additional photographs, the university has stated that it is possible this bear was collared by a University of Alberta research team. A research program in Alaska involving the University of Wyoming, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey was also collaring subadult and adult male polar bears during the same period so the identity of the bear can only be confirmed upon recapture or retrieval of the collar when it drops. Regardless, since the photo was posted, the U of A researcher has been in contact with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey and Environment Canada to determine what could be done.


Q. What is wrong with the collar?

The collars that researchers use are designed to prevent harm to the bears.

      • There is an automatic release preprogrammed to go off on a set date. This has failed.
      • There is also a corrodible link on the collar—two aluminum nuts that hold the collar on corrode within a year and allow the collar to drop off. These should have corroded by now, and the collar should have dropped off but has not yet done so.
      • The collar material is designed to wear out so it breaks and falls off.
      • Collars will transmit for about two years. This collar is not transmitting.

Until the collar is retrieved, we will not know why these releases did not work. This has to be assessed by the manufacturer. There are three release mechanisms: electronic release for a preprogrammed date, the aluminum nuts (which corrode after approximately 12 months), and wearing down of the belting material (which takes approximately two to four years)


Q. Is this situation common?

Complete failure of the release mechanism is extremely rare; they are designed to open automatically if anything in the electronics fails. Our researchers have been collaring bears for more than 30 years, and failure of the release mechanism is rarely seen. One bear’s collar in this study had not released and as per normal procedure, the collar, which was still transmitting location data, was removed but the aluminum nuts had corroded and the collar was almost ready to drop (i.e., after 14 months). The same collars and release mechanisms, made in the U.S., are used around the world.


Q. What kinds of approvals are needed in order for researchers to collar the bears?

All research projects involving animals, including this polar bear project, are reviewed through a stringent approvals process put in place by the U of A’s Research Ethics Office.

The University of Alberta is committed to ensuring the highest possible standards in the care, wellbeing, and quality of life of its animals in accordance with applicable laws and the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) guidelines. The University of Alberta is regularly assessed by and maintains certification with CCAC in accordance with its standards of GAP – Good Animal Practice. Before any animal research may begin, every proposed project is given ethical review, and all details of methods and materials to be used have been carefully evaluated and approved by the Animal Care and Use Committee, which includes scientists, veterinarians, and representatives from the general public.


Q. Why is a collar used? Why not an ear tag?

Satellite telemetry and use of collars is considered a standard method for research of large mammals. The method is used for a diversity of species around the world. The length of time that animals are tracked (typically one to two years), the use of satellite and the challenges posed by the formidable external environment requires the collar to have both a larger battery and a more durable construction than what would be possible in other tracking devices, such as ear tags.

Subadult and adult male polar bears would not be collared in future studies as the new technology of ear tag or glue-on radios would be used, though these do not last as long and do not provide as many locations per day. Efforts are constantly made to ensure the safety and welfare of research animals. To that end, researchers seek new technologies and less invasive methods whenever possible.


Q. Are there other models of collars that researchers can use?

All researchers use the same model and release mechanisms. It is a U.S. product and the best available.


Q. Who collars bears for U of A research projects?

Only the most experienced researchers do the collaring.


Q. Was the collar put on incorrectly?

No. The collar was put on correctly and researchers accounted for a growth factor. The collars are put on loosely enough that the animal can take it off right away. They can slide over the animal’s head when deployed.


Q. Do the collars have negative impacts on the bears?

Analysis from several researchers indicates that there is no detectable change in behaviour, body condition or reproductive success, so they can see no signal from their data of negative effects of the collaring.


Q. What happens if the collar is not removed?

The collar will wear off eventually. Even with the failure of both failsafes, the material will break down and the collar will fall off.


Q. Why don’t the researchers go back to remove the collars from the bears after the monitoring period is over?

The purpose of the failsafes on the collars is to ensure the collars drop off the bears. Bears may leave the area, be in places unsafe for capture, or be in places where researchers cannot safely catch them. For humans to remove the collars, the bears would need to be tranquilized again, which is more invasive for the bears than having the collars drop off.


Q. Does the University of Alberta plan to collar more polar bears?

Other agencies will likely be collaring polar bears in this area of Alaska, but the University of Alberta is not participating in these studies. Researchers may undertake polar bear studies in the future and will use the ear tag technology described above for subadults where appropriate. Collars will, however, be deployed on adult female polar bears where growth of the individual is not a factor.


Research purpose & practice

Q. What is the purpose of this research?

The study was designed to improve our understanding the ecology of both adult and subadult polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea. Obtaining baseline data relative to offshore hydrocarbon development was a primary objective, but additional objectives included studies on effects of climate change, environmental pollutants, disease/parasite exposure, habitat selection, population boundaries, behavioural ecology, population genetics, and related topics. Collars were deployed on the Canadian side of the Beaufort Sea from 2007 to 2010 from the Alaska-Yukon border eastward to Cape Dalhousie in the Northwest Territories. Collars on adults provided data until 2013 and subadults to 2011.

A separate project was conducted by the University of Wyoming in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey and they also deployed collars on subadult and adult male polar bears in Alaska in 2008–2010. The University of Wyoming project was designed to examine the fasting physiology of polar bears during the summer. The collars deployed by the University of Wyoming were the same type of collars deployed by the University of Alberta; thus the source of the collar remains unknown until the bear is caught


Q. Has the Ethics Office been informed about this polar bear?

Yes. The University Veterinarian with the Research Ethics Office have reviewed the case, and the Animal Care and Use Committee has been given the available information to date, and will consider new information as it becomes available. This committee is evaluating the steps being taken to address the situation.


Q. Why does the University of Alberta support research that involves animals?

The University of Alberta holds that scholarly integrity and trust are vital to the responsible conduct of research. It is committed to ensuring the ethical and humane study and responsible care of animals in research. The university supports research involving animals only for well-designed scientific studies that are expected to produce knowledge that will benefit people and/or animals.


Q. Why do we study polar bears?

Research into large Arctic mammals has been ongoing for many decades and has involved researchers from many countries (Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, US, Canada, Russia, Japan) and many more institutions. This research has taught us about human-animal co-existence, industrial and other human (including tourism) impact on the environment, conservation, and natural history, as well as providing a more detailed understanding of polar bear biology.

 


Andrew Derocher's research

Polar bears don’t have a bigger ally than Andrew Derocher.

Much of Derocher’s research over the last 30 years centres on limiting and regulating factors of polar bear populations including habitat use, predator-prey relationships, the effects of hunting on the polar bear population and how they are affected by human activities, including climate change and resource development.

Just last October, Derocher and a colleague were able to demonstrate that polar bears are getting smaller. Shrinking sea ice has meant polar bears spend less time hunting for seals, resulting in weight loss.

Polar bear researcher Andrew Derocher with a cub

In 2013, Derocher and 11 international researchers called on governments to start planning for rapid Arctic ecosystem change to deal with a climate change catastrophe for the animals.

Derocher co-wrote a policy perspective urging governments with polar bear populations to accept that just one unexpected jump in Arctic warming trends could send some polar bear populations into a precipitous decline.

The effects of climate change on polar bears are clear from both observational and modelling studies in many areas where the bears are found. Earlier studies by Derocher and his colleagues show that one very bad ice year could leave hundreds of Hudson Bay polar bears stranded on land for an extended period. “Such an event could erase half of a population in a single year,” Derocher said.

“It’s a fact that early sea ice breakup, late ice freeze-up and the overall reduction in ice pack are taking their toll,” said Derocher. “We want governments to be ready with conservation and management plans for polar bears when a worst-case climate change scenario happens. ”

Because polar bears do not coexist with humans in close proximity, the best scientific data must be used to guide conservation and management policies to maintain viable populations of these species.

Changes in sea ice have revised and eroded their homes. “Polar bears show a high degree of fidelity to their natal area. They don’t leave home,” explains Derocher. “Could polar bears be the monitors of the health and well-being of the northern climate and environment?”

For more information, contact: 

Michael Brown
University of Alberta
Media Specialist
780-492-9407
michael.brown@ualberta.ca