Polar bear's plight renews debate about researchers' use of radio collars

Wildlife officials haven’t tracked down a polar bear that was apparently injured by a tight radio collar after it was photographed in northern Alaska in early October. The bear's condition has renewed debate over use of the tracking devices.

'This is the most cynical and immoral example of what animal science can do to animals,' biologist says

A photo that has been shared on social media shows a polar bear apparently injured by a too-tight radio collar. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hasn't been able to track the animal down. (Susan Adie)

Wildlife officials haven't tracked down a polar bear that was apparently injured by a tight radio collar after it was photographed in northern Alaska in early October.

The bear came to public attention after its photo appeared on social media and was forwarded to a reporter by naturalist and guide Susan Adie. The photo was taken in Kaktovik in eastern Alaska, along the coast of the southern Beaufort Sea.

The bear's plight brought renewed focus to the continuing debate about whether the collars are important enough to justify their use.

The bear was probably collared by a researcher with a Canadian university during a study conducted in Canada from approximately 2007-11, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros said in an email.

"Our marine mammals management staff has been engaged in the matter since early October, when they received reports and photographs from members of the public," she wrote.

"They were worried about the bear and began looking for him with the help of local observers at a whale-bone pile on Barter Island, a popular feeding site in the area, and nearby barrier islands. The immediate goal was to locate the bear and visually assess the severity of the situation, since the process of capturing a bear to remove its collar poses significant risk to the people and the bear, particularly this time of year."

Although the sea ice is likely thick enough in many places for polar bears to walk and hunt, it isn't safe to work on it, Medeiros explained.

"Given the low probability of success in locating and capturing the bear, and the risks to the bear and to the people conducting the effort, we recommend against launching a broad search at this time," she said.

"We will continue to watch for the bear in the vicinity of Kaktovik with the help of local observers. If the bear is resighted, we will assess the conditions at that time to determine if intervention can be done safely."

Radio collars needed: researcher

Stephen Petersen, head of conservation and research at the Leatherdale International Polar Bear Conservation Centre at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, said satellite collars are still needed because they reveal some crucial information about polar bears.

"The questions we can't currently get at easily without collars are things like what kind of habitat are bears using when they're out on the ice and we can't see them, and how far they travel throughout the year. We're able to learn how many successful hunts they have, how much time they spend in the water as opposed to on the ice."

Collaring polar bears is essential in the High Arctic, Petersen said.

"Collars are more sophisticated now," he said. "They're smaller and more efficient with [automatic] pop-off mechanisms."

But they are just part of the mix of research methods, he added.

"We used to do mark and re-capture in order to estimate population size, but now we can do aerial surveys to get that data," he said.

They also aren't needed for polar bear management studies anymore, Petersen said.

"Now we try and get at that sort of information via genetics and fatty acid signatures," he said.

Better tools possible: biologist

But Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov, a Russian wildlife biologist who has spent many years studying polar bears on Wrangel Island in northern Siberia, said collars are no longer necessary and their continued use is slowing development of less invasive technology.

"Satellite tracking by collaring bears was critically important for science at early stages of population research, when it was not known how bears are distributed, what are their spatial patterns and what is population structure of the species," he said in an email.

For the last number of years, the collars have not brought any essential new knowledge about polar bear biology and population structure, he said.

"Although it has been run for decades, for most populations, it does not answer basic questions on population size, does not explain drivers of observed trends and, in some cases, fails to reveal trends or leaves trends questionable," he explained.

There are recently developed non-invasive methods that allow scientists to collect essential data about population trends, environmental factors, genetics and related information, Ovsyanikov said.

"Non-invasive methods may be more difficult for scientists, but [they're] usually less expensive, not unethical, and they are not interfering with normal animal life, thus are methodologically more correct."

There are many examples of how invasive methodology is impacting polar bears, he said, but most such instances are either ignored or misinterpreted by scientists.

Ovsyanikov said invasive science typified by what happened to the Alaska polar bear is "exactly the same as sophisticated torture" of the Middle Ages in human history.

"The animal is left to slowly die in pain and suffering," he said. "This is the most cynical and immoral example of what animal science can do to animals and how immoral it can be."

Collars come off

Radio collars also cause problems for scientists, another polar bear expert has said.

They can't be used on adult males because their necks are bigger than their heads, so the collar won't stay on, wrote Dr. Ian Stirling, a former research scientist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, in his book Polar Bears: The Natural History of a Threatened Species.

"Even with adult females, it's mainly the ears that keep a collar on, so if a female really doesn't want to wear it, she can take it off," wrote Stirling, an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta who has studied the behaviour, population, ecology and predator-prey relationships of polar bears for 40 years.

Although the occasional bear does get the collar off, it is fairly uncommon, he wrote.

Collars can be programmed to "simply drop off" if they are not recovered, so a bear does not carry it any longer than necessary, he also stated.

Satellite radios attached to an ear tag are being tested as an alternative, Stirling's book says.


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