Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

No. 242: Review of the scientific basis for traffic rules in sensitive areas for wildlife in Greenland

Frederiksen, M., Boertmann, D., Labansen, A., Laursen, K., Loya, W.M., Merkel, F., Mosbech, A. & Aastrup, P. 2017. Review af det videnskabelige grundlag for færdselsregler i følsomme områder for dyrelivet i Grønland. Aarhus Universitet, DCE – Nationalt Center for Miljø og Energi, 62 s. - Videnskabelig rapport fra DCE - Nationalt Center for Miljø og Energi nr. 242.  http://dce2.au.dk/pub/SR242.pdf 


In Greenland, there are several separate sets of guidelines regulating traffic and activities in areas of special importance for wildlife, with the aim of eliminating or reducing disturbance. There are two sets of guidelines: one specific for mineral extraction activities involving traffic (‘Rules for field work and reporting regarding mineral resources (excluding hydrocarbons) in Greenland’), and one in the Greenland Government’s Executive Order on Birds, which contains relevant clauses. Finally, there are various local rules e.g. for the National Park in North and East Greenland. The rules in the various sets of guidelines do not always accord. The aim of this report is to summarise the scientific background for regulation of human disturbance and the existing rules, as well as to assess the need for adjustments and simplifications of existing rules. 

Disturbing activities affect wildlife because they are perceived as dangerous, in a similar way as predators. Such activities can therefore have a strong impact on animal behaviour, and thus on their chances of obtaining sufficient food. Pervasive disturbance may lead to animals not exploiting areas rich in food, and thus to population decline. Less pervasive disturbance may affect individual food intake, and thus lead to e.g. reduced fecundity. In Greenland, hunting is often the human activity causing greatest disturbance, but other traffic may also have strong impacts, particularly traffic involving fast and noisy vehicles following unpredictable routes. In some circumstances, animals may habituate to disturbance and thus become more tolerant, particularly if the disturbance is unconnected to actual danger. However, the opposite may also occur, i.e. animals becoming increasingly sensitive to disturbance the more often it occurs. Sensitivity to disturbance is generally highest during periods when animals occur in small areas at high densities, and when their mobility is reduced (e.g. moulting birds). In addition, sensitivity to disturbance is often high and effects marked when animals have offspring needing parental care. 

The following species or species groups are covered by existing rules regulating disturbance, either in the guidelines for mineral extraction activities, in the Executive Order on Birds, or both. Below, the most important recommendations for a potential future revision of the existing guidelines are summarised. For more details, refer to chapter 4 of this report (in Danish). 

  • Geese are generally very sensitive to disturbance, particularly during the breeding and moulting periods. 
    • The guidelines for mineral extraction activities regulate traffic in important areas for geese, and these rules are assessed as sufficient. Minor adjustments may be relevant in relation to white-fronted geese.
    • The Executive Order on Birds does not contain specific rules for geese (except hunting). Consideration should be given to regulating traffic not related to mineral extraction activities. 
  • Moulting eiders and other sea ducks are similarly sensitive to disturbance.  
    • The guidelines for mineral extraction activities contain general rules which are assessed as sufficient.
    • The Executive Order on Birds contains rules which are assessed as insufficient, and there is a need for better data on important moulting areas. 
  • Colonial seabirds are sensitive to disturbance, particularly because the birds are highly concentrated and many individuals thus are affected at the same time.  
    • The guidelines for mineral extraction activities contain rules for breeding seabirds, which do not accord with the corresponding rules in the Executive Order on Birds, and there is a need for standardisation. Otherwise, the rules are assessed as sufficient.
    • The Executive Order on Birds regulates protection periods for some species, and these rules should be adjusted according to the timing of breeding. The distance that cruise ships should keep to murre colonies is assessed as excessive. In addition, there is growing evidence that shots fired during e.g. seal hunting may affect seabird colonies at a large distance (more than 5 km), and there is therefore a need for a stricter regulation of hunting than of general traffic around seabird colonies. 
  • Caribou/reindeer are particularly sensitive during calving.  
    • The guidelines for mineral extraction activities contain rules, which are assessed as mostly sufficient, but similar rules should be introduced for other activities. 
  • Musk oxen primarily occur in areas with very little human disturbance, and there is no need for further restrictions. 
  • Walruses are particularly sensitive when they haul out on land or sea ice.  
    • The guidelines for mineral extraction activities contain rules which are assessed as sufficient.
    • In the National Park, it would be advantageous to introduce rules for walrus similar to those in place in Svalbard, i.e. that different activities are regulated differently according to their potential for causing disturbance. In future years, old haul-outs in West Greenland may be reoccupied, and safeguarding such sites will require rapid introduction of restrictions of hunting and disturbing activities. 
  • Polar bears are particularly sensitive in connection with their breeding dens. The existing rules are assessed as sufficient. 
  • Narwhals are particularly sensitive to noise.  
    • The guidelines for mineral extraction activities should be extended with provisions that protect narwhals against noise from aircrafts and ships, and other similar activities should also be regulated. 
  • Belugas and bowhead whales are not covered by existing regulations for mineral extraction activities in Greenland. Considerations should be made to introduce rules to protect these two species from disturbance, particularly aircraft and ship noise. 

Overall, the assessment is that the rules in place in Greenland provide a good protection against important sources of disturbance, but that simplifications and some further restrictions would be advisable. To simplify rules, the same activities carried out in different contexts should be regulated in the same way. As far as possible, the same rules should thus apply for the same type of traffic carried out respectively in relation to mineral extraction activities, and in other contexts. Relative to other Arctic countries, it is characteristic for Greenland that most rules are set centrally, with relatively few local limitations. This makes the Greenland rules considerably easier to understand and manage, and this strength should be maintained.