Wrangel Island, Russia
Since 1995, Polar Bears International has provided annual funding to allow research to continue on Wrangel Island in Russia's High Arctic. The island is well known for its large concentrations of polar bears and supports the highest density of polar bear dens in the world.
PBI became involved in the project after the collapse of the Russian economy threatened to end a long-term study of the island's polar bears by well-known scientist Nikita Ovsyanikov and his colleagues. Members interested in helping to support this work may earmark their donations for Wrangel Island. Contributions help to ensure that:
- Scientists and rangers continue to maintain a presence on the island, which will discourage poachers.
- A pioneering study of polar bear behavior by Dr. Ovsyanikov continues.
- Polar bears in the nature reserve continue to be counted each year, with sex, age, and physical condition noted. Keeping track of this information is vitally important in view of the threats facing the bears, including climate change, pollution, and poaching.
Following is a description of the project.
Polar Bear Behavioral Ecology on Wrangel Island
Principal investigator: Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov, Senior Research Scientist, Pacific Institute of Geography, Far East Branch of the Russian Academy of Scientists.
I. General Statement
Wrangel Island with neighboring small Herald Island are the key reproductive areas for the Chukchi-Alaskan polar bear population. Marine areas and Wrangel and Herald islands provide optimum foraging habitats for polar bears, and polar bear densities in these marine habitats are high all year round. Approximately 350-500 pregnant female polar bears construct their maternity dens on Wrangel and Herald islands every fall, emerging with their cubs in spring.
Wrangel Island lies right on the southern border of the summer pack-ice extension. In years with normal ice conditions in the fall, a number of polar bears of all ages and both sexes come ashore on the island for brief periods of time. During ice-free seasons, however, tens to hundreds of polar bears stand on the shore for weeks, waiting for the ocean to freeze or for pack ice to move back from the North. This provides scientists with a unique opportunity to study polar bear distribution, population structure, social interactions, and other behaviors through visual observation.
Autumn observations of polar bear activities and the condition of the bears allow scientists to estimate the current status of the population and monitor population dynamics. This is particularly important on Wrangel because the Chukchi-Alaskan population of polar bears is exposed to legal native hunting in both Russia and Alaska and to illegal hunting on the Russian side. In addition, this population is threatened by planned oil and gas exploration on the continental shelf and by the opening of the Northeast Passage to commercial shipping.
II. Goals and Objectives
- To determine the demographic structure of polar bears coming ashore on Wrangel Island in autumn.
- To describe polar bear social interactions in spring and autumn and the role of social behavior in population dynamics.
- To determine the social and environmental factors that influence the polar bear well-being and survival.
- To estimate the number and distribution of polar bears along the coast of Wrangel Island, and to determine their sex, age, and current physical condition.
- To study polar bear activity while the bears are stranded on the shore in autumn.
- To estimate polar bear litter size in autumn, counting separately litters with cubs-of-the-year, yearlings, and two-year-old cubs.
- To study polar bear social and hunting behavior.
- To study polar bear-human interactions.
- To study polar bear social interactions in and near denning areas.
- To determine the factors that influence family group activity during the first weeks after the bears emerge from their maternity dens.
- To estimate the factors that influence the condition of the bears during the autumn season.
- To collect data on ecological processes along the boundaries between the terrestrial and marine ecosystems of Wrangel Island in autumn, including other animal species (particularly focusing on polar bear prey species), phenology, weather, and ice conditions.
III. Structure of the Work
The expedition will include one group consisting of two persons. In autumn the base camp will be on Wrangel's Cape Blossom. The research will begin with stationary observations on Cape Blossom -- a traditional walrus haul-out spot -- and a place with high concentrations of polar bears. This will take place from September through mid-October. After that, from mid-October to early November, a route survey along the entire coast of Wrangel Island will be conducted. During stationary observations, route surveys will be conducted along the coast from the base camp northward and eastward. In spring, stationary observations will be conducted in one of the areas with high denning concentrations (Thomas Mountain, Dream Head, Cape Warring or Herald Island).
The principal investigator will be Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov, who has 19 years of experience in working in the field of the High Arctic and eight years experience in working with polar bears on Wrangel and Herald islands.
Observations will be carried out visually from a distance of five meters to two kilometers (for distant observations, strong telescopes and binoculars will be used). Safety rules, for both observers and the bears, were developed during years of working with the polar bears of Wrangel Island, which has the highest known density of polar bears in the world.
The basic method will be direct visual observations on polar bears near the base camp on Cape Blossom and on routes (using snowmobiles and Zodiacs, if available). The counting and mapping of polar bears and their dens will be carried out. Activity of polar bears will be recorded by text and registered by video camera. Special precautions will be taken to avoid disturbing the bears, particularly females with small cubs.
As research in the Arctic has a complex nature, ecological and faunistic observations will be carried out simultaneously with observations on polar bears. This data will be presented to the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve for inclusion in the reserve's data base and will be published in the Chronicle of Nature (Letopis Prirodi), the annual monitoring report of the reserve.
Binoculars, telescope, video camera.
Required camping equipment: arctic clothing (two sets), arctic tents (one), arctic sleeping bags (2), heaters, and other necessary accessories.
Transportation: snowmobiles with sledges (two), Zodiac (medium size, one), engines (Yamaha or similar, 40-50 hp, one), 10-20 hp, one.
A total of two people will compose the field group: one principal researcher, one field technical assistant.
Results of this research will be analyzed and presented in scientific publications on the behavior, distribution, and population structure of Wrangel Island's polar bears. The final report will submitted to the sponsors and administration of the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve.
To promote better understanding of the problems of conserving polar bears and arctic nature, collected materials and the results of this study will be used for public education in the form of magazine articles and films.
Additional german informations can be found here.
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