The polar bear is the king of Greenland. He is, after all, the official symbol of Naalakkersuisut, the Government of Greenland.
Greenland is not like Churchill, Canada, where there are tourist excursions to ride in an enclosed vehicle and get within a few meters’ distance of the bears.
The Government of Greenland prioritizes the safety of both humans and bears, and the Department of Fishing, Hunting, and Agriculture has released Guidelines for Polar Bear Encounters to give its official recommendations for how to act and what to do. It is originally published in Danish and Greenlandic. I have translated it to English below and am sharing this information purely because it is good knowledge to keep in your back pocket.
It’s just good backcountry ‘street smarts’.
But in no way do I intend to scare tourists. If you are traveling with a tour operator or guide, your guide will be the one to take care of any polar bear encounter situation, IF one should happen. If you are traveling independently and planning to be in the backcountry by yourself (especially in the more known polar bear territories like Northwest Greenland, the National Park, and East Greenland), you will want to be a bit more familiar with these guidelines yourself.
Department for Fishing, Hunting, and Agriculture
Department Head: Amalie Jessen
Work: +299 48 25 20 /// + 299 34 53 04
Mobil: +299 55 33 42
Guidelines for Polar Bear Encounters
Polar bears can present a potential danger for humans, pets, personal effects, property, and other items. One must not act in any way that could provoke an attack.
The desire to take pictures of a polar bear does not justify any action that puts the person, another person, or the polar bear’s life in danger!
Feeding Polar Bears
Feeding polar bears or placing bait for them is discouraged because it causes polar bears to connect the smell of humans with food. The result can be that polar bears repeatedly seek out inhabited areas.
Polar Bears Outside Inhabited Areas
The best way to avoid an attack is to keep a good distance. Upon seeing a polar bear, one should leave the area. The Department of Fishing, Hunting, and Agriculture (via the area’s Hunting and Fishing Officer) must be made aware of the polar bear sighting. Contact information follows below.
What should one do if he sees a polar bear?
- Keep a good distance from the polar bear. Leave the area.
- Notify the Department for Fishing, Hunting, and Agriculture (via the nearest town’s Hunting and Fishing Officer – contact information follows below) with as many details as possible about where you saw the polar bear.
The Department of Fishing, Hunting, and Agriculture provides a form to fill out when one has come in contact with one or several polar bears in the vicinity of an inhabited area. The form can be received after contacting the nearest town’s Hunting and Fishing Officer.
Movement of Polar Bears Around Greenland
Polar bears can be anywhere in Greenland, but the risk to see them is especially high around Upernavik and further north, and in East Greenland. In South Greenland, polar bears can be seen in the spring and summer seasons.
In areas where polar bears are seen regularly, one should carry with him some sort of deterrent equipment and know how to use it to drive away a curious polar bear.
- Scream and wave your arms to make yourself appear large. This is often enough to make a curious polar bear go away.
In areas with high risk to encounter a polar bear, one should always carry a rifle in order to make a warning shot. With consideration of only the greatest emergency situation in which one must shoot at a polar bear, the minimum caliber should be 30-06. Blunt-tipped ammunition (soft point) will be the most effective.
If you are camping in a tent in areas with high risk to encounter a polar bear, one should always have a guard on site who keeps a lookout for bears. Tent camps should be set up so that sleeping tents and eating tents are places at least 50 meters (150 feet) from each other. Trash collection should also be placed far away from both the sleeping tents and the eating tents.
When looking for a spot to set up camp, one should avoid areas where:
- there is an active glacier
- there is sea ice
- there are cliffs/canyons along the coast
- there could be a polar bear den in the vicinity
- there are footprints, fresh droppings, or carcasses of prey from polar bears
- there is limited audibility, for example due to a river or running water
Polar Bears Near Towns and Settlements
A polar bear that comes close to inhabited areas must be driven away using a rifle warning shot, a flare gun, or similar. Metallic sounds, like that of banging two pots together, can also be used. Small boats, snowmobiles, or ATVs to chase away a polar bear can be used, but they must keep a slow pace (only a few km/h) as polar bears quickly become overheated.
“Problem bears” are those that repeatedly return to inhabited areas, despite measures to drive them away.
Request for Permission to Kill Problem Bears
The permission to kill a problem bear is only allowed after being given permission by the Department of Fishing, Hunting, and Agriculture. Killing polar bears is absolutely the last resort, and the Department of Fishing, Hunting, and Agriculture assesses the necessity from case to case.
Requests for permission to kill problem bears should be directed to the Department of Fishing, Hunting, and Agriculture. It requires documentation such as:
- Photographs of damage
- Eyewitness reports
- Photographs of the polar bear(s) in question
The Department of Fishing, Hunting, and Agriculture will be responsible for the killing.
Recommended target points on a polar bear. Source: http://www.sysselmannen.no)
What should one do if one has been forced to kill a polar bear?
- Write ASAP to the Department of Fishing, Hunting, and Agriculture via the nearest town’s Hunting and Fishing Officer with as much detail as possible about the situation.
- Note that there are procedures for the actions related to a killed polar bear. The Department of Fishing, Hunting, and Agriculture will be responsible for all further actions.
Special Information on Polar Bear Cubs and Young Polar Bears
Source: Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (Pinngortitaleriffik)
Young polar bears and mothers with cubs are completely protected.
Polar bears give birth to their cubs in dens in the winter, typically around 1 January. They are weaned from the mother as a young polar bear around 2 years of age. At that time, regardless of sex, the young polar bear is approximately the same size as the mother.
In other words: if the young polar bear is not around the same size as the mother, then it is probably around 1 year of age and is NOT able to take care of itself on its own.
If it is approximately 1 meter (3 feet) long from tail to nose, then it is around 1 year of age and most likely dependent on its mother. If it is approximately 1,5 – 2 meters (5-6.5 feet) long from tail to nose and around 1 meter (3 feet) tall when standing on four legs, then it is around 2 years of age and can maybe take care of itself.
It is more likely that humans come in contact with a young polar bear. They are inexperienced hunters and so, they are often desperately hungry. They are typically easier to chase on the run.
There is not much difference in size between male and female bears in their very first year of life. They are measured in March or April with a straight line from tail to nose. At this time, 1-year-olds are around 147 cm long (4.8 feet) while 2-year-olds are around 172 cm (5.5 feet). The 2-year-olds are nearly the same length as their mothers.
Contact Information: Hunting and Fishing Officers
Each town has its own Hunting and Fishing Officer.
The following information gives the town name, the address, the name of the Officer and an alternate colleague, their work phone number, their mobile phone number, their fax number, and their email address. Click to enlarge.