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A female polar bear reached Iceland this month, and was shot dead by a marksman shortly after it was discovered.

Polar bear defies elements to reach Iceland, is shot dead

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Monday, July 18, 2016, 12:11 PM - A female polar bear reached Iceland this past weekend, and was shot dead by a marksman shortly after it was discovered.

The Iceland Monitor reported the bear, a juvenile female, was sighted at a farm near the northern Iceland town of Sauðárkrókur by a farmer on horseback. He immediately called police, who advised people in the area to stay indoors and dispatched a marksman, which the Monitor says is standard Iceland procedure during polar bear sightings.

The animal got within 500 m of a farm before it was shot dead, some two hours after it was first spotted. 

This is the first sighting of a polar bear in that part of Iceland since 2008, when two of the bears were killed.

Despite Iceland's northern location and proximity to Greenland's population of polar bears, the animals are actually not native to Iceland, and there is no permanent population of them there. Occasionally, one or more individuals will make it to the island on pack ice during the spring melt.

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Official policy is to euthanize them when they are sighted and deemed a threat to people or livestock. Iceland's Institute of Natural History says the current legislation says that can be vague in practice, although bears swimming in the sea or sighted on pack ice cannot be killed.

Iceland has had more than a thousand years experience dealing with the bears, with laws on the subject dating back almost to the time of the first settlements. The oldest reference to them dates from 890 A.D., when a settler captured a female and her two cubs alive and sent them as a gift to the king of Norway.

Though likely a bit spotty in earlier centuries, Icelandic records document more almost 300 bear sightings since settlement, involving around 600 animals, though remains found on the island suggest polar bears were visiting since 13,000 years ago.

Globally, polar bears are considered a vulnerable species, one step away from endangered. In Canada, which the World Wildlife Fund says is home to 60-80 per cent of known polar bears, they are considered a species of concern.

It's very difficult to get an accurate count of bears, but the WWF says there are 26-31,000 individuals remaining in the wild, spread out over 19 population subsets around the Arctic.

Some are doing better than others. While information on Russian populations can be hard to come by, most populations in and around Canadian waters are stable. The WWF says the Baffin Bay population is decreasing, while the population in McClintock Channel in Nunavut is increasing.

Around a thousand of the bears live in Western Hudson Bay -- a relatively small population that has made the Manitoba town of Churchill world famous.

READ MORE:  Polar bear cub hitches a ride on mum's back

The small town, on the shores of the massive bay, regularly deals with polar bears, which are big part of its thriving tourist industry. The government strictly regulates access to the bears, and forbids harvesting them for recreation or commercial purposes.

While some occasionally become enough of a threat to the town and its population that they have to be destroyed, Manitoba says that number is low. Churchill even operates a special "polar bear jail" where animals that have been tranquilized during human encounters are held before being returned to the wild.

As a whole, the species' future is uncertain due to declining Arctic sea ice due to climate change. Polar bears hunt their prey on the ice, which has been dwindling for years as global warming has continued. 

Increasingly restricted access to their natural hunting grounds has forced more and more of the bears to try eke out a living on land, making human encounters in places like Churchill more likely.

Documented polar bear encounters in the area took a big jump from 2013 to 2016, and wildlife experts told CBC sea ice loss due to climate change was partly to blame.

SOURCES: Iceland Monitor | Icelandic Institute of Natural History | IUCN Red List | World Wildlife Fund | CBC

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