Bear Trouble

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

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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Andersen checks the mother’s ear for an identifying tag. “She was caught once before,” he says.

“When?” Derocher asks.


Derocher sets down his black toolbox, takes out some dental pliers and opens the bear’s jaw. Leaning inside her gaping mouth, he deftly extracts a tooth the size of a cribbage peg. The scientists will use the tooth, a premolar that the bear does not need, to confirm her age. She is around 15 years old, Derocher estimates, and he says he wonders if this will be her last set of cubs. Older mother bears—over 15 years— are rare in Svalbard. Derocher suspects that chemical contaminants are to blame. (Female polar bears in the wild can live as long as 28 years or so.)

Andersen is working on her other end, using a biopsy tool to cut a quarter-inch diameter plug of flesh from her rump. Then he quickly fills a test tube with blood from a vein in one of her hind legs. A lab will analyze the bear’s fat and blood for the presence of numerous chemicals. The two scientists stretch a rope over the mother to measure her girth and length, which they then use to calculate her weight.

No matter how cold it gets, Derocher and Andersen always work with bare hands. Today is warm for Svalbard, right at the freezing mark. A few days before, they worked in minus 2 degrees Fahrenheit. They record their data with pencils because ink freezes. Every April, Derocher leaves his family for a month to work in this icy realm. He says his heroes are the 19th-century polar explorers who set out on uncharted ice, surviving years at a time with few provisions. There’s a touch of adventure to his vocation, but Derocher dismisses any comparison to explorers of old. In fact, he says, he hates the cold. “I don’t think I would last a month out here,” he says. “Not unless I had my Goretex and fleece and high-powered rifle.”

Before evaluating the cubs and taking blood samples, Derocher and Andersen inject them with tranquilizer. Derocher attaches an identifying tag to an ear on each cub. Drops of blood fall onto the snow. Derocher goes back to the mother, gently lifts her massive head and puts her lolling tongue back in her mouth. Instanes, the pilot, uses brown hair dye to paint a large Xon her rump, signaling that she shouldn’t be bothered again this year. The cubs are snoring now, all eight paws splayed out on the snow. The threesome will sleep for about two hours, then awaken, shake off the drowsiness and continue on their way. Andersen and Derocher pack up their toolbox and walk silently back to the helicopter. It has been 40 minutes since they landed.

Capturing polar bears for research can be dangerous for man and bear, but the scientists say it’s critical to understand how the animals are faring, how often they give birth, whether the cubs survive, how many industrial pollutants they carry in their bodies. Otherwise, the polar bear “would blindly stumble into extinction,” Derocher says, adding: “My job is to make sure polar bears are around for the long term.”

When bad weather sets in, or the helicopter breaks down, Derocher and his team can be stranded on the ice. Or worse. On a spring day in 2000, two Canadian colleagues tracking bears were killed when their helicopter crashed during a whiteout, a condition in which heavy clouds and snow obscure the ground. If a whiteout descends on Derocher and his crew, they throw dark-colored, rock-filled garbage bags out the helicopter window to determine which way is up.

The helicopter lifts off, heading north. Within ten minutes, Derocher has spotted more tracks—this time, a mother and two plump yearlings. Andersen fills another syringe and rests the shotgun on his leg.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus