Bear Trouble- page 1 | Science | Smithsonian
Having stopped a mother bear with a tranquilizer dart shot from the helicopter, Derocher (with Andersen, left, and Instanes, on Spitsbergen Island) tethers the cubs and takes tissue samples to gauge the mother's exposure to industrial chemicals like PCBs. (Marla Cone)

Bear Trouble

Only hundreds of miles from the North Pole, industrial chemicals threaten the Arctic's greatest predator

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Carved by harsh winds and ancient glaciers and marked by jagged mountains and fjords, Svalbard, Norway, comprises a group of islands 650 miles inside the Arctic Circle, closer to the North Pole than to Oslo. One of the last true wildernesses, Svalbard is also one of the world’s most important polar bear nurseries, though the place is so unforgiving that even under the best conditions many cubs die of starvation. Yet it is a man-made threat that now imperils the bears. Despite living in remote reaches of the Arctic, Svalbard’s bears carry higher doses of some industrial chemicals than nearly any other wild animal tested. And scientists increasingly suspect that the chemicals— especially polychlorinated biphenyl compounds, or PCBs— are harming the bears, perhaps jeopardizing their survival.

About 2,000 polar bears, perhaps 10 percent of the world’s population, inhabit Svalbard, and in April, when spring arrives and the midnight sun returns, mother bears and cubs have stirred and left their winter dens. One of the more ominous findings of recent Svalbard research is that many cubs, even before they leave the safety of their dens to confront the elements, already harbor potentially harmful levels of PCBs, absorbed from their mother’s milk.

Ice in the southernmost fjords begins to break up, revealing brilliant cobalt-blue seawater and great ice floes that look like giant white lily pads. Svalbard is desert dry, with 8 to 12 inches of precipitation a year. On overcast days in the northern reaches of Spitsbergen, the archipelago’s largest island, the fjords are still iced over and it is hard to tell where the ice ends and the clouds begin. The ice looks as taut as a bedsheet in some spots, as billowy as a down comforter in others. This vast, silent plain is a favorite spot for polar bear mothers to raise their cubs.

From the front seat of a helicopter, Andy Derocher spots fresh tracks. Even 300 feet up, Derocher, a Canadian scientist with the Norwegian Polar Institute, in Tromsø, Norway, can tell the tracks were made by a mother and two new cubs. Pilot Oddvar Instanes flies side to side, back and forth, skillfully looping and straddling the tracks, trying to follow the erratic path of the bear family. Lounging by a hole in the ice, a seal looks up, as if puzzled by the helicopter’s antics.

“She’s running here,’’ Derocher says, pointing to a row of bear tracks at the edge of a cliff. “I think she’s ahead of us.”

It is Derocher’s seventh season tracking Svalbard’s bears, monitoring their health and testing them for contaminants. He’s one of the score of people on earth who know how to find and catch a polar bear. In nearly 20 years of research in Canada and Norway, he has captured perhaps 4,000. It is no easy thing, finding a polar bear on snow. Like ice, polar bear fur is translucent, and the hollow hair shafts reflect light. It is easier to spot a bear’s tracks than to spot the bear.

Following the tracks, Derocher sees the mother and cubs right below the helicopter. In the chopper’s backseat, Magnus Andersen, his Norwegian colleague, fills a syringe with tranquilizer—the same drug that veterinarians commonly use to anesthetize a dog or cat before operating on it.He injects the pale yellow liquid into a dart and screws it onto a modified shotgun. The pilot dips to about six feet over the mother, so close he can see the coarse hair on her back blowing in the wind. Andersen kneels on one leg and opens the door. A freezing blast of air slaps him in the face. The blades whip up a frenetic whirlwind of snow, masking his view. Andersen, attached by only a thin green climbing rope, hangs out the open door. He takes aim and fires. The smell of gunpowder fills the cabin. “OK,” Andersen says. A dart sticks out of the bear’s rump. Precision is important. If he had hit her in the chest, he would have killed her.

Within minutes, the mother is starting to wobble. After another few minutes, she lies down on her stomach, panting heavily, eyes open but still, one giant paw splayed back. The cubs nuzzle her, trying to waken her, then settle down beside her. They are wide-eyed and curious as the helicopter lands and Derocher and Andersen cautiously approach on foot, their boots crunching in the crusty snow. The two men circle the bears slowly.

Derocher is a big man, 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, but the mother bear is twice his weight. Amale bear can weigh nearly a ton. Derocher knows polar bears well enough to fear them, and he and Andersen always wear loaded .44 Magnum pistols holstered on their waists. A few years earlier, two young tourists were mauled to death by a bear outside Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s largest settlement (pop. 1,600). Now, as soon as visitors set foot in Svalbard, they are handed a pamphlet with a photograph of two bears ripping apart a carcass—seal, presumably. The animal’s entrails are exposed in a bloody pulp, and the pamphlet warns in bold red letters: “TAKE THE POLAR BEAR DANGER SERIOUSLY!” Derocher never forgets that advice. He doesn’t like being on the bear’s turf, so he watches his back. “It’s never the bear we’re drugging that’s dangerous,” he says in a Canuck accent that sounds a bit Irish in its rustic lilt. “It’s always the bear you don’t see.”

The cubs, which are about 4 months old, are as adorable and innocent as their mother is deadly. At 45 pounds apiece, they are about the size of Derocher’s 6-year-old daughter and just as harmless. Gloveless, Derocher strokes the soft fur on one, and Andersen holds out a finger for the other to sniff and lick. They are the first human beings these cubs have seen, and may be the last. Andersen gently loops ropes around their necks and tethers them to their mother to keep them from bolting. Without her, they would die.

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