Last updated 12 December 2023

The Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) population in Svalbard has the Red List status of Least Concern (LC). It is trapped for its highly insulative fur. In Svalbard, the Arctic fox has been trapped throughout the archipelago for hundreds of years. Currently, a so-called recreational hunting takes place, which is reserved exclusively for residents in Svalbard in restricted areas. Since World War II, the offtake has declined and, after the introduction of regulations relating to harvesting of the fauna on Svalbard in 1997, with the attendant reporting obligation, the bag of Arctic foxes has varied between 24 and 300 animals per season. The hunting statistics do not show a clear long-term trend.

Arctic fox - trapping
Photo: Malin Kjellstadli Johansen / Norwegian Polar Institute

What is being monitored?


Arctic fox hunting

The number of Arctic foxes trapped during the trapping season. The trapping season lasts from November 1st to March 15. The number of trapped foxes exhibits large interannual variation and no clear trend is discernible.
(Cite these data: The Governor of Svalbard (2022). Bag of Arctic foxes in Svalbard. Environmental monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen (MOSJ). URL: http://mosj.no/en/influence/hunting-trapping/arctic-fox-bag.html)

Details on these data

Last updated12 December 2023
Update intervalYearly
Next updateSeptember 2024
Commissioning organizationNorwegian Environment Agency
Executive organizationGovernor of Svalbard
Contact personsEgil Rønning

Method

The take of Arctic foxes is reserved for residents in Svalbard, who must apply to the Governor of Svalbard through Inatur in order to be assigned a trapping area (not applicable to professional trappers). The season runs from 1 November to 15 March. Legal traps are the “Svalbard trap” and the traditional dead-fall trap. Arctic foxes can also be taken by shotgun and rifle within the area assigned to the hunter.

The hunting and trapping results from local hunters and trappers are reported annually to the Governor of Svalbard. Reporting is performed through Inatur’s digital reporting service. Arctic foxes found naturally dead by other causes or captured for other purposes like research, outbreak of rabies or similar are not included in the numbers reported.

A total of 25 trapping areas have been defined, all on Spitsbergen. There are 23 areas in Nordenskiöld Land and two south of Ny-Ålesund. It is permitted to use up to three traps within one trapping area. Only one person is allowed per trapping area. Allocation of trapping areas takes place in accordance with applications received, followed by a draw using Inatur’s system. There are usually more than twice as many applicants as available trapping areas.

The hunting and trapping of Arctic foxes are regulated by the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act and the associated regulations on harvesting in Svalbard. Link to the Regulations: https://lovdata.no/dokument/SF/forskrift/2002-06-24-712

Quality

The reliability of the statistics depends on how precisely and fully the hunters and trappers report. Reporting has not been perfect every year, but is regarded as adequate enough to be relied upon.

Reference level and action level

Reference level: The reference level for hunting and trapping Arctic foxes is the most unaffected population possible, taking natural variation into account. The reference level will therefore be an absence of human impact in the form of hunting, trapping and traffic. Reference levels must also be viewed in connection with population monitoring (MOSJ Arctic fox) where the reference level for Arctic foxes is a relatively stable population with some interannual variation.

Action level: The environmental goals for Svalbard are ambitious and this is reflected in applicable legal acts and regulations. Measures should be taken in the event of a consistent decline in the population over time linked to climate drivers and population monitoring, where the population development can no longer support hunting and trapping. Measures should also be taken if the composition and development of the Arctic fox population is significantly affected by hunting and trapping. Knowledge of both the development of the artic fox population and the impacts of hunting and trapping are thus important for good management.

Status and trend

Arctic foxes have been hunted and trapped in Svalbard for more than a hundred years. Since World War II, the trapping has declined in scope and now takes place in the areas around Longyearbyen in Nordenskiöld Land, and at whatever trapping stations are active at any time. The trapping is now distributed over areas of relatively small extent relative to the archipelago’s total size. This allows for large “edge effects” in the shape of immigrant animals, which complicate the identification of demographic effects, and hence the local population’s exploitation threshold. In the catch reporting period, which began in 1997 when the Regulations relating to harvesting of the fauna on Svalbard were introduced, the annual offtake of Arctic fox has varied between around 24 and 300 animals. The hunting statistics do not show a clear long-term trend.

In line with laws and regulations, all harvesting of species in Svalbard shall take place such that the populations’ natural levels are maintained and that the natural gender and age composition of the species are unaltered. This means a low hunting offtake.

The purpose of the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act is to preserve a virtually untouched environment in Svalbard with respect to contiguous areas of wilderness, landscape, flora, fauna and cultural heritage. Within this framework, the Act allows for environmentally sound settlement, research and commercial activities.

Section 24 of the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act states: The flora and fauna on land and in the sea shall be managed in such a manner that the natural productivity and diversity of species and their habitats are maintained, and Svalbard’s natural wilderness is protected for future generations. Controlled and limited harvesting may take place within this framework. Wildlife in Svalbard is thus protected as a matter of principle, but the hunting and fishing of some species is possible. Section 31 of the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act further states: When decisions are made under this section, due consideration shall be given to ensuring that harvesting does not significantly alter the composition and development of the population in question.

The Regulations relating to harvesting of the fauna on Svalbard, section 1 states: The fauna shall be managed in such a manner that the natural productivity and diversity of species and their habitats are maintained, and Svalbard’s natural wilderness is protected for future generations. Controlled and limited harvesting may take place within this framework. And section 5 states: Harvesting must not significantly alter the composition and development of the population in question. The wording of the Regulations lacks biological precision and Fuglei et al. (2013) propose the following biological definition of the terms “composition”, “development” and “significant” in the Regulations, which should apply to the Arctic fox:

Composition of a population: The demographic structure of the population (i.e. age and gender distribution).
The population’s development: The size of the population over time.
Significant change in demographic structure: A distribution of gender or age that causes the population to decline over time.
Significant change in genetic structure: Systematic loss of genetic variation and individuality that may lead to diminished potential for future adaptations.

A “significant” change in demographic structure will be a gender or age distribution that causes the population to decline over time. The Arctic fox population in Svalbard is considered stable, and harvesting is probably at a level that does not appear to have a significant impact on population size at present. There are also a number of reasons to pay close attention to the population development, and the age and gender composition of the Arctic fox population, as described under ‘Consequences’.

Causal factors

In mainland Norway, the Arctic fox has the Red List status of Endangered (EN) and, in 2015, pursuant to the Nature Diversity Act, it was designated a priority species, with its own regulations. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has designated the Arctic fox one of ten “flagship species” to illustrate the impact of climate change. In Svalbard, the Red List status of the Arctic fox is Least Concern (LC). The difference in the status of the Arctic fox on the Norwegian mainland and in Svalbard is because it inhabits different ecosystems in the two areas.

In mainland Norway, we find the lemming ecotype of the Arctic fox, which feeds mainly on small rodents.

Svalbard is home to the coastal ecotype population, with no significant small rodents available, but with significant input from the marine food chain in its diet, including seabirds and marine mammals, as well as terrestrial prey such as geese, rock ptarmigan and reindeer carcasses. The Arctic fox in Svalbard has more stable and predictable access to food and no competitors, unlike the mainland Arctic fox, which competes with the red fox. The Arctic fox population is thus more stable in Svalbard.

In connection with a research project, for the period from 1997–98 to 1999–2000, it was requested to avoid hunting and trapping in Sassendalen and Adventdalen.

In the 2008–2009 season, considerably more foxes were taken than previously, with a total of more than 300. This was because an unusually capable and keen professional trapper operated from one of the trapping stations and more foxes were taken than usual; moreover, trapping had not taken place there since the 2001–2002 season.

From the 2009–2010 season, new practices were introduced for the trapping of foxes in Svalbard. These were driven by a strong increase in the interest and activity among Longyearbyen’s recreational trappers. As a result of this, the number of trapping permits was increased by opening up new trapping areas around the traditional ones. This resulted in nearly a doubling of the number of trapping areas and a significant increase in the number of traps. Data from both the Arctic fox population monitoring and the autopsies of carcasses from the trapping indicated that, subsequently, more foxes were caught than were produced within the trapping areas in Nordenskiöld Land. The opening of new trapping areas may contribute to changing the existing dynamics (source/sink areas) in as much as it starts to remove foxes from the source zones around the trapping areas. This was considered to conflict with the objective of harvesting in Svalbard.

The new guidelines entail a limit of 25 trapping areas, and a maximum of only 3 traps per trapping area. In Nater et al. (2021), we show, through an integrated population model for Arctic foxes in Svalbard using hunting/trapping statistics, population monitoring and demographic data from fox autopsies, that mortality from trapping almost halved after the introduction of new trapping guidelines. Natural mortality is now more important than mortality from trapping.

The small bag in the 2011–2012 trapping season also requires an explanation. This was the first season after the rabies outbreak in Svalbard in autumn 2011 and the outbreak caused the start of trapping to be delayed by a month. Moreover, that season saw a great many rain-on-snow events, and there was a lot of ice on the tundra, making it difficult for trappers to get out to set the traps. There was no trapping in the Bellsund trapping area in this season. Low harvesting numbers every second season after the 2011–2012 season are because this trapping area has been given a rest.

Consequences

The harvesting pressure on Arctic foxes in Svalbard has varied over time and, following the introduction of new hunting practices in 2009/2010, is probably at a level that does not appear to have a significant impact on population size at present, but there are several reasons to pay close attention to population developments and the age and gender composition of the Arctic fox population.

A study funded by the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund has investigated how trapping affects the Arctic fox population in Svalbard (Fuglei et al. 2013). Trapping began in an area (Austfjordnes) where it had not taken place for a while. This provided the opportunity to investigate demographic and genetic structures in a natural Arctic fox population and one subject to trapping, i.e. a “before and after trapping” situation.

The results showed that trapping influenced the age and gender composition (demographic structure) of the Arctic fox population. A natural, unharvested population is composed of animals of all age classes from juveniles (41%) to older foxes with a relatively equal gender distribution, and the population consisted of a large proportion of older individuals. In a population subject to trapping, the proportion of young animals increased. The largest and most serious effect was that the proportion of older vixens (of reproductive age) was significantly reduced in a harvested versus a non-harvested population. This could have negative consequences for the growth potential of the population because Arctic fox vixens in Svalbard only begin to reproduce from age 3–4 years and not immediately they are sexually mature at 10 months old.

Genetic analyses in this study also showed that it is mainly young foxes that migrate into harvested areas and thus contribute to re-establishing the population.

The survey results show that trapping has a significant effect on the demographic composition of the Arctic fox population in Svalbard, and significantly affects the composition of the population. It does not currently appear that trapping is affecting the development of the population over time since its size is stable (Nater et al. 2021), but this needs to be closely monitored. There is also a need to closely monitor outbreaks of diseases/parasites in the Arctic fox population and implement management measures if the population is reduced. 

After the introduction of new trapping practices in 2009/2010, with the present knowledge of population development over time (stable population) (Nater et al. 2021), and assuming that ordinary trapping activity is maintained, with the existing number of trapping areas (25), permits (25), and traps (max. 3 traps per area), with proper catch reporting and precise monitoring of the population development, the bag is sustainable. However, close monitoring of outbreaks of diseases/parasites in the Arctic fox population is essential and management measures must be taken if the population falls.

Given the ongoing rapid climate change and its subsequent unknown impacts on the Arctic ecosystems, present practices concerning the Arctic fox take in respect of trapping permits, trappers and traps should be reassessed every 5 years. It is also important to closely monitor the Arctic fox population in Svalbard. Climate change can affect access to prey, from both the terrestrial and marine food chains, and reduced sea ice will prevent the migration of Arctic foxes from other Arctic areas (Nater et al. 2021; Ims et al. 2014).

The Arctic fox’s ability to exploit resources from different ecosystems (land and marine) helps in buffering the population against ongoing climate change. However, the future fate of Svalbard’s Arctic fox populations will depend on how climate change affects their most important prey, i.e. reindeer, geese and seabirds, as well as other marine food sources such as seals, which are dependent on the extent of sea ice, in addition to dangerous zoonoses. In 2019, lice were discovered in Arctic foxes in Svalbard, and it is uncertain how this will develop and how it will affect the population in the long term.

About the monitoring

The Arctic fox is a harvestable species in Svalbard, and this population has the Red List status of Least Concern (LC). All harvesting of species in Svalbard shall be done such that the natural productivity and diversity of species are preserved and that the composition and development of populations are not significantly altered.

The Arctic fox has a special ecological adaptation that overlaps both the terrestrial and marine ecosystems. It is the carrier of serious zoonoses (diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans), and in Svalbard this concerns rabies and zoonotic parasites. Any change in Arctic fox population density will affect the occurrence of zoonoses (rabies, Echinococcus multilicularis, toxoplasma). The Svalbard population entails an important management responsibility and is of considerable interest as concerns monitoring and research, which are necessary for knowledge-based management.

Places and areas

A total of 25 trapping areas have been defined. There are 23 areas in Nordenskiöld Land and two south of Ny-Ålesund. It is permitted to use up to three traps within one trapping area. Only one person is allowed per trapping area. Allocation of trapping areas takes place in accordance with applications received, followed by a draw using Inatur’s system. There are usually more than twice as many applicants as available trapping areas.

Link that shows the trapping areas:

https://www.sysselmesteren.no/siteassets/kart/temakart/jakt–og-fangstkart/fangstomrader-for-fjellrev-pa-nordenskioldland-oversiktskart.pdf

Relations to other monitoring

Monitoring programme

  • None

International environmental agreements

Voluntary international cooperation

  • None

Related monitoring

Further reading

Links

Publications

  1. Statistisk Sentralbyrå: Svalbardstatistikk.
  2. Sysselmannen på Svalbard 2014. Årsrapport 2013.
  3. Fuglei, E., Meldrum, E.A., Ehrich, D. 2013. Effekt av fangst – fjellrev på Svalbard. Sluttrapport til Svalbards Miljøvernfond. 30 pp.
  4. Ehrich, D., Carmichael, L., Fuglei, E. 2012. Age-dependent genetic structure of arctic foxes in Svalbard. Polar Biology 35(1): 53–62.
    DOI:10.1007/s00300-011-1030-1
  5. Eide, N.E., Stien, A., Prestrud, P., Yoccoz, N.G., Fuglei, E. 2012. Reproductive responses to spatial and temporal prey availability in a coastal Arctic fox population. Journal of Animal Ecology 81(3): 640–648.
    DOI:10.1111/j.1365-2656.2011.01936.x
  6. Hansen, B.B., Grotan, V., Aanes, R., Saether, B.-E., Stien, A., Fuglei, E., Ims, R.A., Yoccoz, N.G., Pedersen, Å.Ø. 2013. Climate events synchronize the dynamics of a resident vertebrate community in the high Arctic. Science 339(6117): 313–315.
    DOI:10.1126/science.1226766
  7. Ims, R.A., Alsos, I.G., Fuglei, E., Pedersen, Å.Ø., Yoccoz, N.G. 2014. An assessment of MOSJ – The state of the terrestrial environment in Svalbard. Norwegian Polar Institute Report Series 144. Tromsø, Norway: Norwegian Polar Institute. 44 pp.
  8. Nater, C.R., Eide, N.E., Pedersen, Å.Ø., Yoccoz, N.G., Fuglei, E. 2021. Contributions from terrestrial and marine resources stabilize predator populations in a rapidly changing climate. Ecosphere 12.
    DOI:10.1002/ecs2.3546
  9. Pedersen, Å.Ø., Jepsen, J.U., Paulsen, I.M.G., Fuglei, E., Mosbacher, J., Ravolainen, V., Yoccoz, N.G., Øseth, E., Böhner, H., Bråthen, K.A., Ehrich, D., Henden, J.-A., Isaksen, K., Jakobsson, S., Madsen, J., Soininen, E., Stien, A., Tombre, I., Tveraa, T., Tveito, O.E., Vindstad, O.P., Ims, R.A. 2021. (Submitted) Norwegian Arctic Tundra: a Panel-based Assessment of Ecosystem Condition.