European Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)

by Paul White

Brown BearBrown bears have a large global distribution which reflects their ability to adapt to a variety of habitats. There are estimated to be more than 200,000 brown bears worldwide, with approximately 6000 individuals in the Carpathian region of Romania. They are amongst the largest living carnivores and can grow to an enormous size, males up to 350kg, and females to 200kg, with the biggest on record being caught in Romania weighing 480kg.  Adult males tend to be on average 8 to 10% larger than females. They have good hearing, an excellent sense of smell and can live for up to 30 years.

Is the Carpathian ecosystem in good health?

According to Chris Morgan (bear biologist & wildlife researcher) bears make great barometers of ecosystem health, stating "What's good for bears is good for people". Given their dependence on large natural areas, it could also be viewed that bears are important management indicators for a number of other wildlife species too. With this in mind and relatively large numbers of brown bears in the Carpathians, should we consider this a declaration of good ecosystem health?

As always in life the picture becomes more complicated when human activity is involved. Whilst I broadly agree with Chris Morgan's statement, there are other biologists that believe that regular feeding of high calorific and protein rich foods by hunters, reduces the need for bears to forage too far away from hunting sites. With less pressure on natural forest food, bear numbers then increase giving rise to a larger than normal population within any given territory. Regular food improves general health and reduces mortality rates due to natural causes. It could then be argued that bear numbers could remain artificially high through feeding, even when the ecosystem is in decline.

In many ways the Romanian forest ecosystem faired better under the tyranny of Nicolae Ceausescu and his communist regime which strictly controlled logging and land management. However, after the fall of Ceausescu many relatives of those families dispossessed of their land are now claiming their inheritance back from the present day government. After rigorous procedures to verify former family ownership large swathes of forest covered land are rapidly returning to private ownership. Many of these beneficiaries quickly realise the vast commercial potential of the land they now own and tend to harvest trees far too quickly for the environment to recover. Logging is big business which generates high tax revenues, so the government is not generally opposed to large scale logging . These revenues are quickly generated but for how long can this situation be sustained?

Are bears hunted in Romania?

Yes. Hunting has become a thriving business attracting wealthy western hunters to both public and privately administered land. Approximately 250 bears are hunted annually in Romania (about 4% of the estimated population). Each bear is point scored and a price is fixed on the head of the animal shot. In a bizarre paradox the bear hides used for hunting are also used to host conservation tourists and photographers. It is our belief that wildlife tourism is a more sustainable industry than hunting in the long term. A live bear will generate far greater revenue throughout its life with a regular turnover of fee paying photographic tourists compared to a one off hunting fee.

Is coexistence between man and bears possible?

Transhumant Shepherds - CernatTranshumant pastoral shepherds are a good example of coexistence, and have developed many non-fatal measures to protect their livestock whilst grazing lands heavily populated by brown bears. Flocks are moved from one meadow to another in search of fresh grazing along interlinking forest tracks. Wary of the threat posed by bears, shepherds and their dogs are constantly vigilant to prevent loss of livestock. Sheep are rounded up each evening and kept in large corals, with shepherds sleeping in close proximity in makeshift boxes that look like rabbit hutches. The dogs are allowed to roam freely, patrolling the corals overnight. If a bear is brave enough to attempt to steel a sheep the shepherds are quickly alerted by the dogs barking, who form a pack to deter the bear. Not many sheep are taken, but some losses are expected. However, if livestock are taken, the shepherds never call or demand for the bear to be culled. They have lived with bears for generations, and believe they have equal right to exist in the same environment. It is this tolerance and ability to accommodate predators that make these transhumant shepherds unique and such a useful conservation asset. We could in fact learn a lot from them as their methods are tried and tested over many generations, and work.

How many bears are there in the Carpathians?

The Carpathians are home to about 8,000 brown bears in Slovakia, Poland, the Ukraine and Romania, the second largest population in Europe after Russia. Brown bears are considered of high priority in conservation.

Recent estimates of the Romanian population indicate that in Romania about 6,000 bears occur, the population trend being stable. The highest bear densities are found in the areas of Brasov, Harghita, Covasna, Mures, Bistrita, Arges, Vrancea and Sibiu counties (central part of the Romanian Carpathians). During the last 50 years, the Romanian bear population recovered from less than 1,000 individuals to about 6,000 individuals. This recovery process was influenced by both habitat conditions and wildlife management. However, recent developments (e.g. infrastructure developments) have had negative impacts on bears. Problems include behavioral changes (habituated bears), habitat fragmentation and reproductive isolation. Several areas (corridor between Apuseni Mountains and the main ridge of Carpathians, Prahova Valley, southern part of Carpathians - close to Danube) have started to be affected by isolation processes, but there is still connectivity within the entire Romanian Carpathian population. Some dispersers from this population have entered the Czech Republic and Hungary. The next closest population is in northern Bulgaria and north-eastern Serbia, but the migration of individual bears may be very restricted, as the Danube is a major physical barrier. (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species)

Report - Example of autumn garden raid by a brown bear in the village of Ojdula

Szejke Imre (RIP)Imre's dog was barking on its chain which was nothing unusual, but the noise it made increased in volume until it became frantic. Imre and his daughter alerted by the unusual behaviour of the dog left their house to investigate. As they approached the barn they could hear the sound of breaking wood and the sheep within were calling in distress. At night they are locked into a secure annexe of the barn, as three years ago a wolf managed to kill one in the pen outside. As they turned the corner of the barn they saw a bear on the other side of the fence trying to get to the sheep through the wall of the annexe. They later found evidence that the bear had first hopped over the fence and tried to go through the door. Unsuccessful, the bear gave up then hopped back over the fence to find a weakness in the wall of the barn. The bear managed to loosen then break a wooden panel, and was in the process of removing a second when Imre and his daughter tried to scare the bear by shouting. The bear by this time had pushed its head and one forearm through the wall, so Imre ran back to the front of the barn to release his dog where he was met by his neighbour. They both released their dogs simultaneously to harass the bear which proved successful. In the photograph above you can see the new panels replaced by Imre after the incident.

Do bears truly hibernate?

In autumn bears frantically search for high calorific foods to lay down fat before they start their 'winter lethargy'. Contrary to popular belief bears do not hibernate. Yes, body temperature, pulse and respiratory rate all decrease but not to the levels associated with true hibernation. In our area of operation the competition for food is so great that bears start taking increased risks by venturing in gardens and plundering fruit trees for apples, plums and pears. There is an increased risk of human contact during this time, but most villagers are aware of the dangers due to several reported maulings over past years. The difference in Transylvania is that the gun is not used to shoot a fearless scavenging bear in the first instance. Fire crackers are generally used along with dogs to protect crops and property. These safeguards are usually enough to deter all but the most determined bear. However, if a bear becomes immune to these measures and the danger posed is deemed significantly high the local ranger service may destroy the animal. A villager taking matters into their own hands is discouraged and shooting a bear unless in self defence may lead to prosecution.

Bears often return to the same den each year. Prime locations such as caves are usually taken by larger and more dominant animals. Many bears choose a simple hollow in the ground surrounded by a thicket. When the snow comes they are comfortably cocooned in their den with a bed constructed from moss and grass. There are specific signs to be aware of when walking through snow covered trees and ground during winter. An isolated tree free of snow with a mound below is a good indicator of a bears den.  A breather hole at the top of the den enables a fresh supply of air, but as the warm breath rises it slowly melts the snow on the tree above. As bears do not truly hibernate they can be easily roused from sleep, and have been known to explode from dens when startled. All den sightings should be reported to the local ranger service who will ticker tape the area to warn others of the potential danger.

Brown Bear diet and scat

Bear diet varies with the seasons, from grass and shoots in the spring to berries and apples in the summer, nuts and plums in autumn and all year round they eat roots, insects, mammals and reptiles, and, of course, honey. As food becomes more scarce in autumn, brown bears may travel hundreds of kilometres to locate food supplies. Bear population density is also associated with food availability, and those populations in the productive oak and beech forests in the Carpathian and Dinaric Mountains reach far higher densities than populations in the northern coniferous forests.

Bear scat full of berry seedsScat appearance reflects this variation in diet and often gives clues to the health of a bear. I took this photograph in September when berries are still plentiful giving rise to the dark red colour. When bears eat meat their scat usually becomes runny and often contains hairs. Organisations and companies that provide hunting services regularly feed dead horses and cows to the bears which have died in nearby villages. For those bears that regularly visit feeding areas meat becomes a regular food source which increases body weight rapidly. However, many of these bears end up as trophies due to their habitual visits for food.

Bears and Tourism

Wildlife watching in the VranceaAt present trophy hunting generates greater revenues compared to tourists wishing to view bears. Why? Hunting has a long and established history in Romania with many hunting companies providing services to wealthy and prominent customers (including the king of Spain), many of which return year on year providing a regular income. In comparison there are relatively few specialist companies providing services for tourists to view or study bears. The lack of local infrastructure certainly didn't help in the past, but has radically improved over the past decade. There are some obvious advantages to sustainable tourism in that the same bears offer repeat viewing rather than a one off kill by a hunter. Also, all those involved in hunting have transferable skills if they decide to switch to tourism such as tracking, building and maintaining hides, local knowledge of bear habitat and tracks. 

However, when tourists venture into bear habitat, several factors need to be considered in order to avoid  disturbing habitat and the bears themselves. It is also important to ensure the safety of visitors, and educate them of the correct protocols for behaviour whilst in bear country. This can be achieved through brochures, flyers, signs on the hiking trails, and lectures. It would also be necessary to limit the areas accessible to visitors, and limit the number of visitors in certain areas or times. Activities aimed for participation by visitors include searching for, observing and photographing signs of bear presence; observing, photographing and filming bears from high stands and hides near bears feeding sites; involvement in the activities of researchers and/or park rangers; education about bears.

References

Slobodyan, A. 1976. The European Brown Bear in the Carpathians. paper 32, pages 313-319, in the International Association of Bear Research and Management, http://www.bearbiology.com/fileadmin/tpl/Downloads/URSUS/Vol_3/Slobodyan_Vol_3.pdf

Djuro Huber (Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe / Bear Specialist Group) 2006. Ursus arctos. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4.<www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 07 May 2011.

WWF Panda.org. (n.d.). Brown Bear. Available:
http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/species/profiles/mammals/brown_bear2/. Last accessed 8th May 2011.

Swenson, J.E., Gerstl, N., Dahle, B., Zedrosse, A. (2000). Action Plan for the conservation of the Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) in Europe. Available: http://www.lcie.org/Docs/COE/COE%20NE%20114%20Action%20plans%20for%20brown%20bear%202000.pdf. Last accessed 14th May 2011.

Management and action plan for the bear population in Romania. (2005). Available: http://www.icas.ro/DOCS/Bear%20Management%20Plan.pdf. Last accessed 14th May 2011.