THE BEAR IN HUMAN DOMINATED LANDSCAPE

Bears inhabit contiguous forest tracts and adjacent open land. Approximately 41% of Slovak territory is covered by forests, which ranks it among the most forested countries of Europe. The illusion of wild, untouched Carpathian forests, however, is disappearing because human civilization today extends well into the remotest areas of nature. National parks and other protected areas are too small to maintain large carnivore populations viably, as they need thousands of hectares of continuous forests minimally disturbed. Sadly, probably no bear in Slovakia will live out its life without coming into contact with humans and their activities sooner or later. Our aim is to collate new and expand the existing knowledge about bears and present them to the scientific community and the public.

 

Bear telemetry

Bear research using GPS-GSM telemetry is conducted by the National Forest Centre Zvolen, and the Carpathian Wildlife Society in the areas of Poľana, Malá Fatra, and the Veporské mountains. The positions of collared bears are taken  at least every hour, but also at shorter intervals if necessary. In addition to the positional data, each collar records the activity of the animal at 5-minute intervals. Activity is expressed by the head movements in vertical and horizontal directions. With 2-3 years of telemetric monitoring of individual bears, it is possible to describe not only their landscape use but also various aspects of their behavior. So far, novel information about Slovak bears has been gathered and we continue to capture additional individuals that build our database of information.

 

The female bear, Cinderella, surprised us giving birth to seven cubs during two just years. We captured Cinderella together with two cubs from the previous year on 12.04.2012 and marked her with a GPS – GSM collar. The third cub was left alone during the collaring, but soon after rejoined the other family members.

 

 

Cinderella with her four cubs of the year from August 2013 © Michaela Ľalíková Cinderella positional data obtained at one-hour intervals by GPS telemetry. This female gave birth to three cubs in 2011 and to four cubs in 2013. It is still questionable whether all cubs will reach adulthood. But the young from 2011 have already survived the first two crucial years of life. © Slavomír Finďo

 

 

 Telemetry collars are fitted in addition to the GPS creating a so-called activity logger. Figure illustrates the activities of the female bear. Cinderella from when she was collared until 09.09.2013. The blue points represent the number of head movements in the vertical direction and the green in the horizontal direction. Each point represents a 5-minute interval, while its value is calculated from the average number of head movements in the horizontal or vertical direction. Maximum values of these averages may reach 255. The red line shows the temperature of the collar, representing the ambient temperature at a distance of approximately 10 cm from the animal's body. Ambient temperatures are usually biased because they are influenced by body heat or sunlight. During hibernation, however, the measured values characterize temperature conditions in the den well. The temperatures in the den did not drop below zero throughout the winter, important because freshly born cubs have not developed thermoregulation. Thus, their lives directly depend on the ambient temperature and heating from their mother. The white area below the red line shows the denning period. During this time the female bear was minimally active or completely inactive. © Slavomír Finďo

 Misho is one of the largest male bears in the mountains of Poľana. In 2009 he was marked with a GPS-GSM collar. His weight and age was estimated at over 300 kg and around 15 years old. After a few months he destroyed the collar by rubbing himself against the trees. © Slavomír Finďo

 

 

In 2012, we again captured Misho at another site and marked him with the GPS-GSM collar. He was observed several times mounting various females. It is likely that he has sired many cubs in the area. © Ľuboš Frič    

 

Modelling bear habitat

The reason for the creation of a habitat model was the media had deeply influenced public opinion about bear overpopulation and penetration into areas where they had never been before. To create the model it was necessary to obtain and process large amounts of information contained in the environmental variables relevant to the lives of bears. The result of the modelling is the map showing the areas where bears may occur with a particular probability. Four colors characterize probability levels: yellow illustrates the least and dark brown the most suitable area for the life of bears. The bear range in 2004 is shown by transparent white. Looking at the present range and the most suitable habitat, we can expect bears to inhabit many new places. Why they have not occupied all good habitats, depends on many other factors, such as human disturbance of woodlands and disruption of migration corridors due to the development of transportation and other infrastructure. However, there may be other unknown negative causes. Nowadays, people often say that bears are present in areas where they had never been previously observed. However, few people know that bruins originally inhabited the whole country, except for forest-free areas such as marshes and floodplains. Gradual transformation of the country into farmland and urban areas worsened or annihilated environmental conditions for bears.  

 

Habitat suitability model for the bear in Slovakia. © Koreň et al. 2011         

 

Bear - human interactions

Our colleague, Michaela Skuban, has been investigating bear-human interactions for a long time. She compiled a comprehensive breakdown of the brown bear and its coexistence with humans in a project supported by the German Foundation “Andrea von Braun Stiftung”. The project was published in the book in German, titled “Dem Braunbären auf der Spur ... Lebensweise, Geschichte, Mythen“ (On the Trail of the Bear...Life history, History, and Myths). Leopold Stocker Verlag, Graz – Stuttgart, 2011. Michaela received in February 2013 the second prize for environmental protection awarded by the Yves Rocher Foundation for her publication in the book. This award is given annually to only three women working in the field of environmental protection. The following is an excerpt from her contribution to the book.

“The bear is a fascinating animal that after the last ice age inhabited most of the European continent. Its range has shrunk considerably and is now limited only to certain European mountains, among which the Slovak Carpathians constitute an important refuge. Findings from field research, such as telemetry, food analysis, behavioral observation from stealth cameras, come from Slovakia, where the bear has never been extinct. Peculiarities of bear behavior are described extensively but in a friendly way. I clarify for example, what bears do when they want to find food, how they behave during their short period of family life, how they prepare to survive long winters and the difficulties in starting life, during which cubs have to learn a lot. In order to best explain the various aspects of bear life, in addition to current scientific publications, I used the rich resources of Russian and Eastern European literature, unknown or little accepted by the Western world. Moreover, I used a lot of yet unpublished data from Slovakia.”

The bear in Slovakia, and in many places of Europe, no longer lives in unaltered nature, but in close proximity to people or sometimes even among them. Therefore, both parties, whether they want to or not, have to live together, which creates a colorful array of relationships. The bear is, on the one hand, an impressive and inspiring animal; on the other hand, it creates fear and often causes problems for people. The bear is a member of the carnivore family, but largely feeds on wild and cultivated plants. Its feeding habits often come into conflict with human interests and result in damage to field crops, fruit trees, bee hives, and livestock. People and bears increasingly live close to each other due to the shrinking of suitable forest habitat for the bear. In certain situations, especially in a wood overcrowded by people, the bear can attack a human being. Adding to this, new EU member states from Eastern Europe have recently accelerated the development of road infrastructure, resulting in the fragmentation of bear and other animals’ habitat. In addition, remote spots are becoming rarer because of increasing outdoor activities, including berry and mushroom picking, hiking, and building of new recreational facilities.

I've compiled all the knowledge not only from the perspective of biology but also from other disciplines, such as literature, ethnography, mythology, religion, history, hunting, arts, and folk habits. I looked for what it is about bears that intrigued men in the past. I came to the conclusion that people transmuted peculiarities of bear behavior into habits, tales, cults, and rituals. In Slavic mythology, the bear achieved a form of superior status compared with other animals. People admired bears for their strength, ability, hibernation – which they explained as death and resurrection – and, in some cultures the bear female reached the status of a Goddess. The book also discusses the current problems of bears, for example, coexistence with humans, bears in captivity, orphaned bear cubs, nuisance bears, damage to human property caused by bears, and the escalation of conflict between hunters and environmentalists, which brings more harm than benefit for the bears.”

 

Michaela Skuban wrote the book about bears. Michaela Skuban has been awarded the second prize for the environmental protection by the Yves Rocher Foundation.

 

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