Bear in Poland

In historical times, the brown bear occurred in all Poland. Preserved by law as a royal game animal, only kings and nobles could hunt bears. However, the species was persecuted at every opportunity in ruthless ways. In the 18th century, bears were perceived as a pest and special traps were set to kill them. They consisted of holes in the ground with sharp poles on the bottom, often located under trees with bee-hives in the forest. The bears were also killed for their meat, fat and pelts, which were highly valuable in the context of chronic poverty of that period. Hunting and habitat degradation caused the gradual disappearance of the species in most parts of the country. From the 16th century onwards, its destruction became increasingly intensive. The species was soon confined to the Carpathians, and by the end of World War I, only few bears were left in the country. The last refuge of the Polish lowland was Bialowieza Forest, where the last bears were shot under the Russian rule in the end of 19th century. After World War II, the number of bears within the new borders of Poland was estimated at 10-14; they persisted only in the Tatra and Bieszczady mountains. That number remained stable until the 60s, when the population of brown bears slowly started to recover. The highest increase of bear numbers took place in the Bieszczady mountains, where large areas became virtually depopulated as a consequence of the forced deportation of southeastern Poland’s Ukrainians in 1947.

Currently, the number of bears in the Polish Carpathians is roughly estimated on 100-120 individuals (although it should be noted that it has never been assessed reliably). The Polish population represents the northwestern range of the distribution of the Carpathian population. The Carpathian population includes the brown bears in Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine and Romania and it has been estimated in c.a. 8,000 bears. There are five main bear refuges in Poland, all of them are located in the Carpathian Mountains: the Bieszczady Mts, the Tatra Mts, the Beskid Niski Mts, the Beskid Zywiecki Mts, the Beskid Sadecki Mts and the Gorce Mts. For the bear population in Poland the most valuable area are the Bieszczady mountains, which are home for more than 70% of the population.

Study of bears began with the collection of their hair, left in the so-called traps. Traps were special patches or wire wrapped around a tree with bait attracting bears. Predator, rubbing against such trap, would leave hair. Additional samples were collected from areas where bears caused damage, mostly from broken hives. Samples were collected over 12 months and subsequently delivered to the laboratory the Department of Genetics.

Bear Biology

General

The Polish population of brown bears is classified as a nominative subspecies, Ursus arctos arctos L. They are the largest mammalian predator in Poland. Carpathian bears can weigh up to 350 kg (males) and 250 kg (females) and body length can reach more than 2 meters. Bears walk flat-footed and their hindfoot tracks resemble the footprints of human armed with long claws. These animals are only superficially slow and clumsy, and can run at a speed of about 50 km/h. They can jump, swim, climb on the rocks and trees, and their reactions are very fast. They are mainly nocturnal; if undisturbed, bears can become more diurnal. During the day, they usually rest at beds, usually a fresh place dug in the soil within a coniferous ticket.

These large predators do not actively defend their territories. Several individuals can coexist in the same area, especially during periods of food abundance. Adult males are solitary. The home range of adult males usually encompasses those of several adult females, and overlap with those of other males. In the spring, bears rub on the trees and scratch the tree bark to announce their presence and reproductive status. They also remove the bark and eat the phloem of some coniferous species of trees. Telemetry studies conducted in the Bieszczady Mountains revealed that the 9-month home range of an adult male was 1100 km2.

Breeding

The mating season lasts from May to June. Males may fight over females during the breeding season. Both males and females mate promiscuously and both sexes roam to mate. The implantation of the fertilized egg is delayed; the effective development of the foetus lasts for 2 months. In the winter den, typically every two or three years, the female bear gives birth to 1 to 3 cubs (often twins, but up to 5) in January-February. At the time of birth the size of bear cubs is similar to that of a rat, weighing less than half kg; they are blind and hairless. However, they gain weight quickly by suckling the highly nutritious milk. The female at that time stays with them constantly, and leaves the winter den relatively late. The cubs remain in the den for about 4 months and then accompany the mother for 1.5- 3.5 years. Cubs weaned at 1.5 years of age. Sometimes older cubs from the previous litter accompany their mother after she gives birth to a new litter. A female with cubs may be dangerous, as she can attack in their defence. Sexually selected infanticide occurs in bears, with males killing the cubs which are not their offspring. A female which has lost her cubs, may re-enter the oestrus, which is an opportunity for the male to transfer his genes. Sexual maturity occurs at 5 years at the earliest. Immature bears may have paler fur on collar of neck. Except for females with young, bears are generally solitary, but may gather in large numbers at food resources.

Food

The bear is a generalist species. It is omnivorous, with a highly seasonal diet. In early spring bears feed a lot on winter carcasses of ungulates and artificial food resources – cereals and vegetables used as bait for ungulates. In the Tatra Mountains, in their search of carcasses, bears patrol the avalanche sites, even on very high ridges. They also can be active predators of large animals, such as wild boar, deer and even bison, already weakened by severe conditions of winter. Reports of such cases, however, are not frequent. Later in the spring bears feed on green vegetation (grasses, forbs), young ungulates (actively preyed upon), and insects (mainly ants, wasps and bees). During late summer and autumn, when they store fat for the winter, they forage mainly on berries, tree fruits and beechnuts and hazelnuts. In the Bieszczady Mountains they often forage in the numerous abandoned orchards with cherry, apple and pear trees. One of their preferred delicacy is honey. Tasting this goody apparently makes the bears fall into euphoria.

Winter sleep

The beginning and duration of the winter sleep depend much on weather conditions. Most often it starts in late autumn-early winter (in the Tatra Mountains could start earlier, even in October) and lasts till late winter-early spring (end of February-April). Bears sleep in the winter dens, which are secluded and inaccessible places. Winter dens can be located in rock cavities, cavities under fallen trees, hollow trunks of old trees, or they can construct a type of “tent” by placing and bending small trees in young dense coniferous forest. Bears line a comfortable bed inside the den with twigs, moss and grass. Bears’ winter sleep is not a true hibernating status (a state of physiological dormancy, as for example in marmots), and sometimes it can be interrupted during the winter. All the pregnant females sleep during the winter, but males and females which do not expect offspring may be more active in winter time, especially during low frost and high availability of food.

Bear conservation

Legal status

Brown bears have been fully protected by law in Poland since 1952. According to the Act from 16th of April 2004 about Nature Protection (Acts Laws from 2004 No. 92 item. 880) and the Regulation of the Minister of Environment from 28th of September 2004 about wild animals under protection (Acts Laws of 2004 No. 220, item. 2237) bears in Poland are strictly protected species, requiring active protection. It is prohibited to kill, injure or capture the bears; hold them captive, destroy their winter dens, disturb bear cubs, as well as to keep and sell their pelts and other parts of dead individuals without proper authorization. For wild animals it is required to determine areas of refuge, breeding or regular residence. Bears require a protection zone of 500-meter radius around the winter dens in the period from 1 November to 30 March.

The brown bear is listed in the Annex II and IV of the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC). It is listed as a priority species and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) should be designated within the Natura 2000 network to protect the species. Bears are also protected by the Bern Convention. In the „Polish Red Data Book of Animals” have the status NT (near threatened) – lower risk species, but close to danger.

Threats

Many factors are threatening the future persistence of the bear population in Poland. The Action Plan for the Conservation of the Brown Bear in Europe has identified habitat fragmentation and human access to bear habitat as the major threats for the species in Poland. These threats are also important in Slovakia and Ukraine, countries sharing the bear population with Poland. It has been suggested that the area of brown bear occurrence in Poland is contracting due to exploitation and fragmentation of forest and to an increasing human pressure. On the other hand, the increasing artificial supply of food resources, as dumps, has created the additional problem of conditioned bears, frequently documented in the Tatra mountains. Thus, the risk of conflicts between bears and people has considerably increased in the last decade. More than half of the documented bear deaths in the Polish Carpathian mountains were human-caused. Future economical development may have important consequences for the persistence of the population if adequate conservation measures and land planning are not implemented.

Habitat loss and fragmentation

Bears are nowadays restricted to forested areas. They have very large spatial requirements and need wide continuous areas of suitable habitat. Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation are probably the main threat for the long-term persistence of the Polish bear population. The fast development in the mountain areas and the construction of roads and highways may lead to big problems for Polish bears in a close future. The lack of municipal urban plans and the increasing uncontrolled development of tourist infrastructures in the Polish Carpathians are fragmenting and destroying bear habitat. An important problem reducing the quality of bear habitat is building ski investments within large forest complexes.

Human disturbance

The Carpathian mountains are a popular recreation area throughout the year and unfortunately bears are also disturbed during the whole year. Tourist business is rapidly developing, with the subsequent increase in the number of visitors, and the development of infrastructures like hotels, mountains shelters and skiing stations. The growing human pressure in the Carpathian forests is particularly evident during holidays and weekends, when on the trails and forest roads can travel thousands of tourists. Intensive logging and hunting activities may also disturb bears. Forest roads are also used by off-road vehicles and noisy quads and cross motorcycles and facilitate human access to remote bear areas. The winter, the period of winter sleep, coincides with the peak of activity of skiers and snowmobile users. Climbers and free skiers, with access to remote areas, may be a great disturbance for bears. Most ski resorts are located near the bear refuges, and the noise and vibration emitted by motor scooters, lifts, and accompanying loud music, greatly disturb dormancy of these animals.

Habituation

Some bears may lose their natural fear of man and later also natural instinct to acquire food. They may become used to people and link them to an easy acquisition of food. This synanthropic behaviour of animals is a direct response to man-made changes in their lives, especially the overabundant supply of food at garbage dumps and restaurants containers. This phenomenon appeared in the Tatra mountains as the earliest in Poland. More than a decade ago, a programme to monitor those nuisance bears was established. This programme included identifying such individuals with ear tags or telemetry collars, deterring them from human settlements with rubber bullets, removing garbage and using electric fences to protect garbage bins. These measures have been very successful and since then, nuisance bears are just accidental events.

Killing

Most cases of killed bears come from illegal hunting (confused with ungulate and shot) and poaching with snares. Very often the victims are young animals, for example cubs disturbed from the den or young drowned. A recent and unfortunate example is the death of a young bear in 2007, which was first attracted with food and later killed by tourists in the Tatra National Park. Collisions with cars and trains are also a cause of mortality, which it may be expected to increase in future. Bears that survive collisions, but are injured, may become dangerous for people. Such case was recorded for example in the Slovak Tatra Mountains, where a bear was hit by an electric train and few days later heavily injured a tourist.

GRUPA MEDIA INFORMACYJNE & ADAM NAWARA