Photo shows polar bear injured by tight radio collar

A photo of a polar bear with bloody wounds from a too-tight radio collar illustrates an unfortunate but rare side effect of wildlife research, biologists say.

Bear injuries from research collars are rare, conservationist says

A photo that has been shared on social media shows a polar bear apparently injured by a too-tight radio collar. Naturalist and guide Susan Adie says the photographer wishes to remain anonymous, but said it was taken taken in Kaktovik in eastern Alaska, along the coast of the southern Beaufort Sea. (Susan Adie)

The image is bleak — a polar bear has its throat circled by bloody wounds from what appears to be a too-tight radio collar around its neck.

The photo was taken in Kaktovik in eastern Alaska, along the coast of the southern Beaufort Sea, said Susan Adie, a naturalist and guide who forwarded a copy of the image making the rounds on social media.

The photographer wishes to remain anonymous out of concern for her local guide's ability to work with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Adie said, but the person told Adie it's not the first time a bear has been seen in such a plight.

"The photographer has travelled to this place many times," Adie wrote in an email. "The report back to me is that they have seen examples of these collars that are too tight on bears every time they have been to Kaktovik [over four years].

"Each year, the local people complain about the collars. However, the people who organize these photo opportunities are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their licence to operate."

Collar injuries rare

Geoff York, senior director of conservation for Polar Bears International, said he knows about the bear in the photo and has reached out to the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Alberta to see who might have led work on the animals in that area.

"My guess is that a crew is probably waiting to go up there and remove the collar," he said from Churchill, Man.

"Having worked for the USGS for 12 years doing polar bear research in the North, these sorts of injuries are rare, which is not to say it's OK. We want to see this issue resolved soon."

The people who placed the collar, not the manufacturer, should be blamed for the bear's plight, said Vince Crichton, a Winnipeg wildlife biologist who worked for the wildlife protection branch of Manitoba Conservation for 40 years.

"It's the individuals that put it on," he said. "Just looking at how tight that collar is, it would appear they didn't recognize that there would be an increase in the neck circumference of this male polar bear."

Neck grows during the fall

Male animals, including moose, deer, elk and caribou, have necks that grow in circumference during the fall breeding season, Crichton explained.

When he was doing caribou research, a bull caribou in eastern Manitoba added 30 centimetres to its neck circumference in 45 days, he said.

Wildlife biologist Paul Paquet admitted he's attached radio collars that have ended up injuring animals.

"There is no doubt that the capture and handling of wild animals has an effect on their behaviour and physiology," he wrote in an email.

"Most studies now abide by established rules that were instituted in response to scientific misconduct by governments and academics. They stipulate that an independent ethics committee must review research involving animals before the start of any experiment.... Non-invasive methods of conducting wildlife research are now gaining prominence."