European Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)

by Paul White



Brown 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 and 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.(Update note:Since the hunting of bears for trophies was banned in 2016, the feeding of bears should have ceased)

Brown bear mother with cub

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?

There is also a thriving but illegal trade in wood, with extensive clear cuts causing widespread deforestation across the country. This illegal activity has also been taking place in 'protected' national parks, causing a significant reduction in some of Europe's largest virgin forest stands. There are many activist groups now highlighting this destruction, but Gabriel Paun of NGO Agent Green was one of the first.

Are bears hunted in Romania?

Before 2016 there was a thriving hunting industry, but thereafter a trophy hunting ban was introduced by the Romanian government. Now in 2018 this decision is likely to be reversed, although the reasons for changing direction are not fully understood. Conservationists believe that the system for counting bears in Romania is flawed, which artificially raises population figures. If hunting quotas of up to 10% of the population are issued each year, then some argue that the brown bear population will be at risk long term.

Many believe the bear population has increased too fast over the past two years and as a result human/bear conflicts have increased. Pressure is now being put on the Romanian government to reduce the bear population to improve public safety. But how do we know that the bear population is increasing if the method for counting them is incorrect? Is it possible that this apparent increase in bears is caused by habitat loss and fragmentation caused by extensive deforestation? Is habitat loss leading to a reduction in the available 'wild foods' and promoting further conflicts with humans? The government published a strategy called 'The Action Plan for Conservation of the Brown Bear in Romania to determine the level of intervention for brown bears in the interest of Health and Safety of the Population and in Order to Prevent Serious Damage.' In response to this strategy Agent Green replied to the minister for the environment with an open letter stating that "The population estimates on which the proposed hunting quota for the brown bear are based, are biased and biologically implausible."

Is coexistence between man and bears possible?

Transhumant Shepherds - Cernat

Transhumant 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.

Unfortunately the story is quite different inside villages and towns where bear incursions occur on a regular basis, especially during autumn and spring. In general people who experience conflicts with bears are unaware of who and where to go for assistance. Recently I contacted a carnivore expert in Romania to talk about a bear sow who enters the village of Ozsdola on a regular basis with her three cubs. I asked him for the helpline number that people should call for help but he wasn't aware if there is such a service. He said they should contact the mayor in the village.

Neither are resources readily available to the general public to prevent conflicts, which is in stark contrast to the other countries where people coexist with bears such as the USA and Canada. Resources such as bear spray (for personal protection), bear proof bins for food waste, electric fences to protect livestock and disposal services for roadkill carcasses and dead farm animals. There are a few European Union funded initiatives and NGO's trying to help farmers and provide educational resources, but their message does not always reach the many smallholders that are effected. Possibly because this information is in digital format and many villagers do not have the time or inclination to access the internet.



To give the reader some perspective the Carpathian mountains ecosystem is slightly larger than the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem but supports ten times more bears. (The Livingstone Enterprise 2018).

Example of autumn garden raid by a brown bear in the village of Ozsdola

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.

Later they found evidence that the bear had first climbed over the fence and tried to go through the door. Unsuccessful, it then went back over the fence and found 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 found that the bear had pushed its head and one forearm through the wall. Imre then ran back to the front of the barn to release his dog where he was met by his neighbour. He released this dog too and simultaneously the dogs harassed the bear and chased it back to the forest. In the photograph you can see the new panels replaced by Imre after the incident. Such events are rarely reported unless there is a loss of livestock.

Further incident reports:-

1. Ozsdola 03/11/2018 

How many bears are there in Romania?

As already stated it is difficult to know the exact numbers of brown bears in Romania, but best estimates indicate that there are about 6000 individuals. 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 dispersal 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)

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.

European Brown Bear

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 there is a ban on trophy hunting which used to generate greater revenues compared to tourism. 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 returned 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 as a single bear offers 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 country, several factors need to be considered in order to avoid disturbing wildlife habitat whilst maintaining visitor safety. Education on how to deal with bear encounters and access to bear spray and it's correct use is essential. This can be achieved through brochures, online information, signs on hiking trails, and lectures by rangers. Bear spray should be made available for rent just as it is in the USA.

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.