Last updated 8 December 2023

The population of Svalbard rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta hyperborea) has the Red List status of Least Concern (LC). Between 190 and 340 hunting licenses for Svalbard rock ptarmigan are distributed annually, and the number of hunted ptarmigans ranges between 500 and 2000. Most ptarmigans are shot in Fuglefjella and Platåberget in Nordenskiöld Land. While the annual trend for the number of shot ptarmigans is negative, the population trend for territorial males during spring is increasing. However, the decreasing numbers of ptarmigans shot can be explained by changes in hunting behaviour over time, and the decrease in hunting does not reflect the size of the autumn population. Thus, the bag statistics do not reflect the real population development. The ptarmigan bag is monitored to ensure that hunting does not have negative effects on the population.

Ptarmigan hunt at Svalbard. Photo: Øystein Overrein / Norwegian Polar Insitute

What is being monitored?

Number of Svalbard rock ptarmigans shot in Svalbard

The figure shows the bag of Svalbard rock ptarmigan based on reports from hunters. The hunting period is from the 10th of September until the 23rd of December. The bag varies quite a lot between years, and there is a decreasing trend.
(Cite these data: The Governor of Svalbard (2023). Bag of Svalbard ptarmigan. Environmental monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen (MOSJ). URL:

Details on these data

Last updated8 December 2023
Update intervalYearly
Next updateMay 2024
Commissioning organizationNorwegian Environment Agency
Executive organizationThe Governor of Svalbard
Contact personsEgil Rønning
Eva Fuglei


In Svalbard there are permanent residents, a few trappers and some visitors who hunt Svalbard rock ptarmigan. Hunters report the number of ptarmigans killed through the hunting licences that the Governor of Svalbard sells on

Reporting is required, and after 2018 it takes place through Inatur’s digital reporting service. Trappers also annually report the number of ptarmigans harvested. Wing samples are annually handed in, but this is voluntary, and hunters are encouraged to hand in one whole wing from each bird shot. The collecting of ptarmigan wings is carried out under the auspices of the Norwegian Polar Institute.

The reliability of the statistics will depend on the support for reporting hunting results. The hunting community in Svalbard is small and consist of a small number of hunters, a close follow-up is expected. However, we are still unsure about the quality of the statistics.

The hunting period is from the 10th of September to 23rd of December. For permanent residents there is a bag limit of up to 10 ptarmigan per day, while visitors can shoot a total of five ptarmigans per season. For trappers there is no quota.

Small game hunting is regulated through the Svalbard Environment Act with accompanying regulations on harvesting in Svalbard. Link to the regulation:


The reliability of the hunting statistics will depend on the accuracy and acceptance of the reporting. In Svalbard, the hunting community is so small that a good follow-up should be expected. Even so, reporting has not been 100% in all years. The Governor and the Norwegian Polar Institute quality-assure data before they are reported to MOSJ.

Reference level and action limit

Reference level: The reference level for Svalbard rock ptarmigan is set at a level where the population is in an almost unaffected, and natural variation is taken into account. Therefore, the reference level will be an absence of human influence in the form of hunting. The reference level must be seen in context with the monitoring of territorial male ptarmigans ( where there is a stable reference level with some natural variation.

Action limit: The environmental goals for Svalbard are high, and this is reflected in laws and regulations. Measures should be taken in case of a long-term population decline linked to climate drivers and where population monitoring reveals that there cannot be any sustainable hunting. Measures should also be taken if the population composition and development for Svalbard ptarmigans is affected by hunting and trapping. Sufficient knowledge about the population development and effects of hunting is thus, crucial for management.

Status and trend

The Svalbard rock ptarmigan have been hunted on Svalbard since the end of 16th century when Svalbard was discovered, the largest extent of hunting was during the overwinter trapping in the 19th century (Løvenskiold 1964, Pedersen et al. 2005). Nowadays the Svalbard rock ptarmigan is the most popular small game species around the settlements on Svalbard and is hunted by residents, visitors and some professional trappers, between 500-2000 ptarmigans are shot each year. Most ptarmigans are shot around Longyearbyen (Fuglei et al. 2023). The hunting statistics, which started in 1997, vary from year to year and show a decreasing trend in number of shot ptarmigans. In addition to the hunting statistics there is a yearly field campaign monitoring the population. This monitoring has been ongoing since the year 2000 and applies standardized methods to estimate the density of ptarmigans in breeding areas (Pedersen et al. 2012, Soininen et al. 2016, Fuglei et al. 2020, Marolla et al. 2021). Monitoring has revealed that there is an increase of ptarmigan population since 2014 (Soininen et al. 2016; Fuglei et al. 2020; Marolla et al. 2021). Thus, revealing opposite trends for number of ptarmigans shot and estimated ptarmigan population. The number of ptarmigans shot is decreasing over time while the estimated ptarmigan population is increasing.

Following laws and regulations all harvesting of species on Svalbard should be performed in a way so that it does not impact the natural levels of the population and the species natural sex and age composition.

The aim of the Svalbard environmental protection act is to sustain a close to unaltered environment when in relation to the connected wilderness, landscape, flora, fauna and cultural heritage. Within this framework the law allows for environmentally conscious settlements, research and industry.

The Svalbard environmental protection act § 24 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. » Animal species are therefore protected from hunting, however there are exceptions for certain species. In § 31 it is written « 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 stocks in question. »

The regulations relating to harvesting of the fauna on Svalbard § 1 it is stated: «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. » also § 5 states «Harvesting must not significantly alter the composition and development of the stocks in question.». From a biological standpoint this wording is unprecise, and we suggest the following:

A “significant” change in demographic structure would be a sex or age composition change that results in a population reduction over time. For example, the Svalbard rock ptarmigan hunting statistics show a reduction in young bird killed, however there is considerable uncertainty if this reflects a population change or a change in hunting behaviour. The proportion of young birds in the bag is determined using wings handed in after a successful hunt. The demographics are validated by performing autumn counts of males, hens and chicks which is compared to wing data over five years (2017 to 2021) (Fuglei et al. 2019 and 2023). Comparison between young bird population estimated from wings and autumn counts of males, hens and chicks shows an expected correlation, however not significant (Fuglei et al. 2023). This does not necessarily mean that the ongoing long-term negative trend in the proportion of young birds in the population is real, since such long-term trends can also be due to changes in where and how hunting is conducted. The gradual changes in hunter population and changed hunting pressure in the various hunting areas may have led to a bias in the proportion of young birds that have been killed. However, it cannot be ruled out that the trend in the proportion of young birds based on wing data is correct, and that increased winter survival due to the increasingly warmer climate on Svalbard overcompensates for the decline in chick recruitment. This indicates that we still do not have a large enough database to draw statistically strong conclusions to the young bird proportion based on wing data. A significant change in population size would be significant unambiguous trend over time. Monitoring data on territorial males show an increasing trend since 2014, partially in the same areas where there is hunting. Hunting is spread over larger areas than the monitoring areas and the overlap varies between 13% and 20% (Fuglei et al. 2023). The hunting statistics show a decrease in number of killed animals.

Causal factors

Hunting reporting was introduced in 1997 under the auspices of the Governor of Svalbard with a quota of 10 ptarmigans per day and a maximum take of 30 ptarmigans per season for permanent residents. Trappers were exempted from the quota scheme and visitors received a quota of 5 ptarmigan per season. The following year, in 1999, the quota for permanent residents of 30 ptarmigan per season was taken away as a result of “lack of knowledge about the biological need for the quota limitation”, and 10 ptarmigan per day have since been the quota for permanent residents (www.lovdata. no/dokument/SF/forskrift/2003-08-04-1005?q=h%C3%B8stingsforskriften; Pedersen et al. 2005).

Ptarmigans can be hunted over a long period of time – from 10th of September to 23rd of December, but most ptarmigan are shot before darkness starts at the end of October (Soininen et al. 2016). Very few permanent residents fill their quota of 10 ptarmigan per day (Fuglei et al. 2023).

The annual total harvest is strongly influenced in some years by the take of trappers, as this take is also included in the statistics. In 2009, for example one trapper alone accounted for 41% of the total take. The take must be largely expected to reflect the stock in the Isfjord area/central Spitsbergen.

It is known that populations can exhibit large population variations. In the Svalbard rock ptarmigan, no cyclical fluctuations have been demonstrated as in the willow ptarmigan and rock ptarmigan on the mainland Norway. This can be linked to the fact that there are no naturally occurring populations of small rodents or specialist predators such as peregrine falcons on Svalbard. However, there is much evidence that the population dynamics of all the overwintering species on Svalbard – Svalbard reindeer, Svalbard rock ptarmigan, sibling vole and arctic fox – co-vary and that the dynamics are affected by climate-related events such as rainy weather in winter (Hansen et al. 2013). De-iced pastures after rain-on-snow events result in increased winter mortality and poorer young production due to reduced access to nutrition. The reduction in the three populations of herbivores comes completely synchronously and in step with the rainy winters.

An older harvesting experiment from the 1980s found an excess of ptarmigan in the populations in the spring, i.e. that there are more ptarmigan males than the number of available territories, and thus documented surplus birds to harvest in the 1980s (Fuglei et al. 2013, Pedersen et al. 2014).

The harvest reporting that was introduced in 1997, together with the request to hand in a wing from each bird taken, has provided hunting statistics with two types of information: 1) the number of ptarmigans taken per year and 2) the proportion of young birds in the population determined from the handed in wings. The hunting statistics from 1997 show a negative trend in both the number of ptarmigans shot per year and the proportion of young birds hunted (Soininen et al. 2016; Fuglei et al. 2019 and 2023). It is often assumed that hunting statistics for ptarmigan reflect changes in population density (i.e. that more birds are shot when density is high) and production (increasing production with an increasing proportion of young birds). The trends in the hunting statistics for Svalbard rock ptarmigan do therefore not correspond well with the estimates from the monitoring of the breeding population, which showed a stable population until 2013 and then an increasing trend. It can be pointed out that hunting statistics can be affected by sources of error, where scientifically based monitoring data is not. The reason for the downward trend in the number of ptarmigans shot since 1998, as shown in the hunting statistics, is most likely linked to changes in hunting behaviour and that the current composition of the population in Longyearbyen has changed over time (Fuglei et al. 2019). This indicates that the decline in hunting statistics does not reflect the actual situation for the ptarmigan population on Svalbard, but rather changes in the hunter population.

Model analyses indicate that hunting has a certain reducing effect on ptarmigan population growth, but that this effect is weak. This is probably because strong density dependence has a compensatory effect in relation to the hunting harvest, and because the climate change on Svalbard has had a positive effect on population development so far. Particularly the warmer winters on Svalbard explain the increase we see in the density of territorial males in the spring during the last few years. This indicates that increasing winter temperatures have a strong positive effect on the population growth of ptarmigan on Svalbard, which offsets the negative impact from other climate-related changes such as rain-on-snow events. It also seems that the ptarmigan population can compensate for the current harvesting level as we found no negative effect of harvesting in the previous year (Marolla et al. 2021).

It is concluded that the current hunting pressure on the Svalbard ptarmigan population in central Spitsbergen does not affect the population significantly.


On mainland Norway, many landowners have introduced daily quotas for rock ptarmigan as well. In Svalbard, it may indicate that the daily quotas do not constitute any restriction on the removal of ptarmigan by the permanent residents. The daily quota for permanent residents is so high that very few hunters fill the quota and must stop hunting.

It is likely that neither the quota nor the hunting period limits the take. The take may appear to be limited to a greater extent by the availability of ptarmigan in easily accessible areas around Longyearbyen, weather, driving conditions (snow), decreasing day length and the hunters’ motivation and skill (Fuglei et al. 2019 and 2023).

A study from Svalbard using old data from a harvesting experiment, examined how the ptarmigan population responds demographically (age, sex and body weight) to hunting mortality and whether nesting density is affected by hunting (Pedersen et al. 2013). The study documented that there is an excess of both males and hens, and there was no effect on breeding density after harvesting in the spring. Surplus birds in the population open the opportunity to harvest the surplus as compensation for other mortality.

The fact that the harvest experiment showed no effect on breeding density and that both sexes re-established themselves quickly also indicated that the population of Svalbard ptarmigan is limited by territorial behaviour and/or a lack of good breeding habitats.

Research has also confirmed that the Svalbard rock ptarmigan can move over large distances in the autumn, but that the main part of the hunt normally seems to take place before the movements start, i.e. that the hunt is mostly on the local breeding population (Fuglei et al. 2017). Processing of catch reports will be able to confirm this. The exception may be the hunting of certain trappers.

The annual monitoring shows that the number of territorial ptarmigan males from 2000 to 2013 was relatively low with moderate variations between years (from 1 to 3 males per square kilometre; Pedersen et al. 2012, Soininen et al. 2016). From 2014 we see an increase in the density of territorial ptarmigan males in the monitoring area, which in this last period varies between 3 to 5 males per square kilometre (Soininen et al. 2016; Fuglei et al. 2020; Marolla et al. 2021). The annual monitoring data so far show an increasing trend in the density of males that breeds in the spring.

The trend in the hunting statistics (number of ptarmigans shot per year) does not match well with the estimates from the monitoring of the breeding population, which showed an increasing trend. This can be explained by changes in hunting behaviour, and we can therefore assume that the declining hunting statistics do not reflect the size of the autumn population. The hunting statistics does not reflect the population size.

With the knowledge we have so far, we consider it ecologically justifiable to harvest the surplus of ptarmigan with the current intensity. It is nevertheless important to clarify that to be able to quantify the harvest level for Svalbard rock ptarmigan with greater certainty, there is a lack of knowledge about the ptarmigan’s productivity, recruitment and survival. These are important demographic parameters that can affect the number of surplus birds available for hunting.

Today’s natural environment with rapid climatic changes can give ptarmigans new challenges that must be considered when future harvest levels and quotas are to be assessed. It is not recommended to increase the hunting harvest of Svalbard rock ptarmigan. As of today, the daily quota of 10 ptarmigan per day is not filled, and there are no quota restrictions over the season. Within the hunting period from 10th of September to 23rd of December, Svalbard rock ptarmigan can be hunted throughout Svalbard, unless otherwise specifically stipulated in law or regulations based on law. This means in reality that the hunting of Svalbard rock ptarmigan is not regulated by quotas.

In general, for all the harvested species on Svalbard, the quota regulations are rigid, i.e. that changes in the quota regulations take a long time to determine (preferably several years) and you will not be able to capture rapid changes in population development with rapid management measures. In other words, with the current rules and regulations, you cannot run dynamic adaptive management on Svalbard. The rapid climate changes we are facing in Svalbard will require a more dynamic quota setting tool that is adjusted on an annual basis based on stock counts before hunting, as is the practice on the mainland. Current quota regulations for Svalbard ptarmigan have remained unchanged since 2003.

Quantitative harvesting models for Svalbard ptarmigan should be developed to ensure justifiable ecological harvesting where climate warming is considered in the models.

About the monitoring

Svalbard rock ptarmigan is a harvestable species on Svalbard, and this population has red list status as least concern (LC). All harvesting of species on Svalbard must take place in such a way that the natural productivity and diversity of the species is preserved and that the composition and development of the populations does not change significantly.

Svalbard rock ptarmigan is a subspecies of the rock ptarmigan and is the only plant-eating bird species that lives on Svalbard all year round. It is endemic to Svalbard and Franz Josefs land, and therefore a species that Norway has a special management responsibility of. There are no population estimates for the whole of Svalbard. It breeds over most of Svalbard, but has not been documented breeding on Kvitøya, Kong Karls Land, Hopen and Bjørnøya (Løvenskiold 1964; Pedersen et al. 2005).

Svalbard rock ptarmigans have low genetic diversity, which suggests that they have been isolated on the archipelago for a long time (Sahlman et al. 2009). The habitats vary throughout the year and ptarmigans stay in separate habitats during the breeding season and during the winter. They leave the breeding areas in September-October and both sexes return to the breeding areas again during March, the males return first, later followed by the hens (Unander & Steen 1985; Fuglei et al. 2017). Access to good breeding habitats can be limiting for the population as only < 4% of the ice-free land areas on Svalbard constitute medium to good habitats for ptarmigans (Pedersen et al. 2011; 2017).

Svalbard rock ptarmigans have relatively low annual adult survival (on average 48%; Unander et al. 2016) and high reproduction rate (average litter size 8.4; Steen & Unander 1985). Low temperatures and rainfall during the breeding season (Unander et al. 1985), combined with high nest predation (up to 50%) are the most important factors that determine chick production (Steen & Unander 1985). The Svalbard rock ptarmigan is clearly the species that is harvested in the largest numbers.

Relations to other monitoring

Monitoring programme

International environmental agreements

Voluntary international cooperation

  • None

Related monitoring

Further reading


  • None


  1. Fuglei, E., Pedersen, Å.Ø., Unander, S., Soininen, E., Hörnell-Willebrandt, M. 2013. Høsting av Svalbardrype – gamle data med potensiale for ny innsikt. Sluttrapport til Svalbards Miljøvernfond. Tromsø: Norwegian Polar Institute. 20 pp.
  2. Fuglei E, Blanchet M-A, Unander S, Ims RA, Pedersen ÅØ. 2017. Hidden in the darkness of the Polar night: A first glimpse into winter migration of the Svalbard rock ptarmigan. Wildlife Biology, Volume: 2017, article ID: 2017: wlb.00241.
  3. Fuglei, E., Holmgaard, S.B., Stien, J., Tombre, I., & Pedersen, Å.Ø. 2019. Svalbardrypenes jaktstatistikk. Norsk Polarinstitutt, Kortrapport nr. 051 Sluttrapport 16/54 til Svalbards Miljøvernfond.
  4. Fuglei, E., Paulsen, I. M. G., & Pedersen, Å. Ø. 2023. Høsttelling av svalbardrype: sluttrapport til Svalbards Miljøvernfond. Tromsø, Norway: Norwegian Polar Institute. 28 pp.
  5. 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.
  6. Løvenskiold, H. L. 1964. Avifauna Svalbardensis: with a discussion on the geographical distribution of the birds in Spitsbergen and adjacent islands. Norsk Polarinstitutt Skrifter nr. 129. 490 pp.
  7. Marolla, F., Henden, J. A., Fuglei, E., Pedersen, Å. Ø., Itkin, M., & Ims, R. A. 2021. Iterative model predictions for wildlife populations impacted by rapid climate change. Global Change Biology27(8), 1547-1559.
  8. Pedersen, Å.Ø., Overrein, Ø., Unander, S., Fuglei, E. 2005. Svalbard Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus hyperboreus) – a status report. Norwegian Polar Institute Report Series 125. Norwegian Polar Institute. 20 pp.
  9. Pedersen, Å.Ø., Jepsen, J.U., Fuglei, E. 2011. Habitatmodell for Svalbardrype – en storskala GIS-studie som viser fordeling av egnede hekkehabitater på sentrale deler av Svalbard. Sluttrapport til Svalbards Miljøvernfond. 30 pp.
  10. Pedersen, Å.Ø., Bardsen, B.-J., Yoccoz, N.G., Lecomte, N., Fuglei, E. 2012. Monitoring Svalbard rock ptarmigan: Distance sampling and occupancy modeling. Journal of Wildlife Management 76(2): 308–316.
  11. Pedersen, Å.Ø., Soininen, E.M., Unander, S., Willebrandt, M.H., Fuglei, E. 2013. Experimental harvest reveals the importance of territoriality in limiting the breeding population of Svalbard rock ptarmigan. European Journal of Wildlife Management. 12 pp.
  12. Pedersen, Å. Ø., Fuglei, E., Hörnell‐Willebrand, M., Biuw, M., & Jepsen, J. U. 2017. Spatial distribution of Svalbard rock ptarmigan based on a predictive multi‐scale habitat model. Wildlife Biology2017, 1-11.
  13. Sahlman, T., Segelbacher, G., & Hoglund, J. 2009. Islands in the ice: colonisation routes for rock ptarmigan to the Svalbard archipelago. Ecography32(5), 840-848.
  14. Soininen, E. M., Fuglei, E., & Pedersen, Å. Ø. 2016. Complementary use of density estimates and hunting statistics: different sides of the same story?. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 62, 151-160.
  15. Unander, S., & Steen, J. B. 1985. Behaviour and social structure in Svalbard Rock Ptarmigan Lagopus mutus hyperboreusOrnis Scandinavica, 198-204.
  16. Unander, S., Mortensen, A., & Elvebakk, A. 1985. Seasonal changes in crop content of the Svalbard Ptarmigan Lagopus mutus hyperboreus. Polar Research3(2), 239-245.
  17. Unander, S., Pedersen, Å. Ø., Soininen, E. M., Descamps, S., Hörnell-Willebrand, M., & Fuglei, E. 2016. Populations on the limits: survival of Svalbard rock ptarmigan. Journal of ornithology157, 407-418.