Polar bear injured by radio collar part of U of A study, Environment Canada says

Researchers from the University of Alberta are responsible for fitting a polar bear with a radio collar that appears to have injured the animal, an Environment Canada scientist says.

'Fail-safes' intended to make tracking device drop off 'obviously didn't work'

A photo that has been shared on social media shows a polar bear apparently injured by a too-tight radio collar. An Environment Canada scientist says the bear was collared by researchers from the University of Alberta. (Susan Adie)

Researchers from the University of Alberta are responsible for fitting a polar bear with a radio collar that appears to have injured the animal, an Environment Canada scientist says.

A photo of a polar bear in eastern Alaska attracted the attention of wildlife advocates, scientists and international agencies last month. The photo, taken in Kaktovik along the coast of the southern Beaufort Sea, shows a tight-fitting collar around the neck of a polar bear. The bear's fur around the collar is stained red, apparently with blood.

While collaring for the purposes of tracking female polar bears is common practice, and generally considered safe by the research community, others are citing the example as evidence the method is invasive and needs to stop.

Both the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have said the bear was not collared by their organizations.

While U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff said the organization did conduct a joint research project in 2008 during which four polar bears were collared for a period of 2½ months, "all collars were removed from or confirmed as having dropped off those bears," they said.

The agencies said the bear was probably part of a project being conducted by a Canadian university between 2007 and 2011.

Not 'enough verified information'

In a statement sent to CBC Manitoba on Nov. 12, a spokesperson with the University of Alberta said it was possible the bear was collared by researchers at the university, but there was not "enough verified information" available yet to be sure.

Evan Richardson, a polar bear scientist with Environment Canada, believes there is enough information to say the bear was collared by the U of A.

It was part of a study that set out to follow the movements, habitat use and dispersal of sub-adult polar bears, including younger males, he said.

The Winnipeg-born scientist said Environment Canada wasn't involved in the study, and while the U.S. Geological Survey has an active research program in the part of the Beaufort Sea where the bear was photographed, it doesn't collar sub-adult males and wasn't involved in the U of A research.

Polar bear ID

While the widely circulated photo of the injured polar bear doesn't provide conclusive proof of the bear's sex, Richardson said he's seen other photos taken the same day that show it quite clearly.

"[Male] polar bears have penile hairs," he said. "They have long hairs coming off the shaft of their penis. Quite often they're stained yellow from urine. This particular bear, you can see him rolling on his back and see in fact it is a male bear."

The bear's sex is important because males are collared less frequently than females due to a difference in neck shape and size.

"In particular for adult male polar bears, their necks are actually wider than their skull, so they won't actually wear a radio collar," Richardson said. "You can kind of imagine it's almost shaped like a traffic cone. You go to slide a round collar on it and it slides off."

Polar bears aged two to four (sub-adults) typically don't have the same "traffic cone" problem because they haven't filled out in the neck yet, Richardson said.

Fail-safe failure

The U of A study used collars programmed to automatically release, Richardson said. Polar bear collars also have a metal part that's designed to rust and eventually cause the tracker to fall off, he said.

"Both of those fail-safes obviously didn't work," Richardson said, adding the device doesn't appear to be transmitting location data anymore. "But it could've fallen off a week after the picture was taken. We don't really know."

Most of the devices fell off the bears involved in the study as planned.

"If in fact this is a bear that was collared for University of Alberta research, this would be the first time our researchers have seen this happen to one of their collared bears," the U of A says on its website.

The bear hasn't been seen since Oct. 13. With new sea ice forming in the area, it's suspected the bear has ventured out onto the ice for winter. 

Researchers don't know where the bear is, but Richardson said other photographs taken that day show the bear was feeding. Since it was able to feed, researchers assume it isn't being "choked from the collar" or having breathing problems, he said. 

Fat stores normal for this time of year

The photos also indicate the bear's fat stores are normal for this time of year, and that he is generally in good condition, Richardson said. The bear is wrestling and playing with other bears in some photos.

"It's rolling around on its back, engaging in normal polar bear behaviour, so how the collar is likely to impact the bear in the future if it wears it, say, for another year, it's hard to say. This particular bear is still growing."

Because the bear is male and it can gain significant weight on the ice during the winter, the fear is the collar could become even tighter as the bear grows.

Representatives of U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Environment Canada have been in talks since early October, trying to determine how to proceed with search and rescue efforts. They had hoped the bear would be located and the collar removed, but safety concerns associated with thin ice and low odds of finding the bear at this time of year have prompted them to put the search on hold.

With files from Martin Zeilig