Brown Bear (Ursus Arctos, Linnaeus 1758) Conservation and Research Programme in a Model Area in Romania

Project location: ROMANIA, Eastern Transylvania
Project start date: June 2012 - Project end date: June 2013
Project number: 2012-018
Beneficiary: Association Milvus Group

TIMELINE OF THE PRESENT ACTIVITY REPORT: 01 June 2012 – 01 June 2013

Objective 1: Improving the social acceptance of the species:

Activity 1.1. Continuing and further consolidating our ongoing education program about bears:

In July 2012, education activities about bears were carried out on 2 occasions within the Milvus Group’s own Forest School. Both events covered almost 1 full day each – during this time, scholars have learned about bear biology and ecology, about how to recognize the signs of the bears’ presence, as well as about basic telemetry research. As an end to the activity, a recently discovered bear den was visited. The first Forest School camp was attended by more than 30 Hungarian children, while the second camp had approximately 30 Romanian pupils.

Also in July 2012, the Hungarian section of the University of Agricultural and Veterinarian Sciences from Cluj Napoca has held a 1 week long camp for its approximately 40 Veterinarian students. The 11th of July was reserved for wildlife issues and the veterinarian scientist working within the present project has kept an extensive presentation on brown bear anesthesia. The first half of his presentation was about the current situation of the bears in Europe and about the threats and issues facing the species.

On the 29th of October 2012, a presentation was held in the city of Cluj Napoca, at the Babes-Bolyai University’s Biology and Ecology Department, as part of a series of presentations about nature conservation issues in Romania. The initiative came from the University itself, as an effort to provide information to the students that cannot be fitted into the regular curricula of the conventional classes. The presentation was about bears in general (biology, ecology, threatening factors) and the present project. The 40 minute presentation was followed by a 2 hour-long open discussion. The event (held in Hungarian) was surprisingly successful, with over a 100 students and teaching personnel attending, from the Biology Department, the Geography and Geology Department, as well as from the University of Agricultural and Veterinarian Sciences from Cluj Napoca.

On the 27th of February 2013, a presentation was kept about bears (biology, ecology, conservation issues) for 35 elderly people in the city of Targu Mures. The presentation, kept in Hungarian and followed by an approx. 1 hour-long open discussion, was part of a series of events organized for elderly intellectuals, called the Wednesday Tea Afternoons.

Activity 1.2. Performing an information campaign in localities throughout the project site:
Generally, the association has concentrated on reaching the locals through the mass-media, namely local and regional TV stations, newspapers and radio stations. These attempts are described below, at Activitiy 1.3.

Activity 1.3. Supplying the media with materials about bears and about the project: the project had the following media coverage:

•          27th of September 2012, an approximately 45 minute long live discussion on Stii TV, a regional TV station, in Hungarian

•          5th of October 2012, an approximately 28 minute long interview and discussion on Erdely FM (Transylvania FM), a regional radio station, in Hungarian

•          8th of October 2012, an approximately 1 minute long interview on DIGI 24 HD, a national TV channel, in Romanian

•          29th of October 2012, a 2 minute long interview published on a social media platform, accompanying the presentation on bears at the Babes Bolyai University, in Hungarian

•          5th of November 2012, an 8 and a 6 minute long interview on Kolozsvari Radio (Radio Cluj), a regional radio station broadcasting in Transylvania, in Hungarian

•          10th of December 2012, a 1 page long article in the Vasarhelyi Hirlap regional newspaper (with a mentioning also on the front page of the newspaper), in Hungarian (please note the financers of the project listed at the end of the article)

•          12th of December 2012, an extensive article about the project on a popular online news portal (szekelyhon.ro) - http://szekelyhon.ro/aktualis/marosszek/a-medvek-eletmodjat-tanulmanyozzak , in Hungarian (more or less the same article as the one published in the Vasarhelyi Hirlap newspaper – see previous point)

•          14th of December 2012, a 7 minute long interview on Marosvasarhelyi Radio (Radio Tirgu Mures), a regional radio station broadcasting in Transylvania, in Hungarian

•          On the 5th of February 2013, an interview in Duna TV’ show, The Carpathian Express (TV station broadcasted internationally, in Hungarian) – story related to the Hungarian folk legend that bears predict the weather on the 2nd of February

•          On the 7th of April 2013, an interview in the PRO TV news (TV station broadcasted nationally in Romania, in Romanian) – story on the illegally kept bear cub that we have just confiscated from a private “owner”

•          On the 7th of June 2013, an interview on the Transylvania (Erdely) FM (radio station broadcasted regionally, in Hungarian) – story on bears and habitat fragmentation, highways and their effects on wildlife, as well as protected areas and large carnivores in Romania

Objective 2: Improving scientific knowledge about the species – conservation oriented research work:

Activity 2.1. Improving scientific knowledge about bear home ranges, movement and activity patterns, habitat use:

Actual trapping efforts were started at the end of July 2012 – preparatory feeding has been carried out at both traps and in both project areas since early July. Initially it seemed that capturing bears would be quite straight forward, since they were coming regularly to the traps. However, from the moment the traps were actually activated (end of July 2012), the bears basically avoided them. Following this, baiting was resumed at both traps (with inactive traps). Both sites were checked almost on a daily basis from late July until the 22nd of November 2012 – without success.

The association has re-started feeding at the 2 trapping sites at the end of February 2013. They have captured and collared 3 bears so far in 2013, all in the project’s mountainous target area (the 1st on the 26th of March, the 2nd on the 30th of April and the 3rd on the 8th of June). All the animals were young males (approximate weight 120-150 kg, estimated age 4-5 years).

There is a most likely a problem with the 1st collar they have mounted – they haven’t received any data from it. Starting with July 2013, they will try to localize and recover that collar. The other two collars are functioning well so far.

They have also captured a bear (a very large male) in the project’s hilly target area. However, until they have reached the site (approx. 1 hour), the bear managed to escape from the trap (it somehow took out the door and pulled it inside the cage).

Following this unfortunate event, both traps have been extensively reinforced.

The association is continuing trapping efforts in both sites (a 4th bear – an elder male was captured and collared in the project’s mountainous target area on the 1th of July 2013).

Activity 2.2. Improving scientific knowledge about bear den characteristics and denning habits:

During the 2nd half of 2012, 2 new bear dens and 1 new open-air nest have been identified in the project’s hilly target area. Also, 3 previously unknown bear dens were located at the edge of the project’s mountainous project area. Additionally, a number of other locations were checked (indicated by various stakeholders as potential denning areas), but without success.

No new bear dens have been identified so far in 2013. At the moment, the association knows the locations and measurements of a total of 41 bear dens and 4 open-air nests. Updated and final information on the known Romanian dens (as well as other digital datasets previously agreed on) has already been sent to Croatian large carnivore experts for preparing a common scientific paper. The paper will include a computer model on habitat suitability for denning – the model for Croatia has already been created, and than the work arrived to a halt due to the lack of time. Hopefully, they will resume the process soon and the final manuscript will eventually be submitted for peer-review before the end of 2013.

Activity 2.3. Improving scientific knowledge on bear food habits and diet composition:

Unfortunately, the association was not able to start this activity yet, since they haven’t found a botanist willing to engage on a long term in this study.

Activity 2.4. Parasitological study:

Since the start of this activity (December 2011), the association has managed to analyze (together with the veterinarian specialist with whom they work in the present project) the following number of samples:

•          digestive tracts & inner organs from a total of 17 bears shot by hunters

•          112 scat samples collected from the wild

The problem with this study is that with the equipment they possess, they can identify parasite species only to the Genus level. For species level identification, they would need much more advanced technology (for example, PCR). Also, some species of parasites are simply too small to be observed with the microscope they are using. However, even so, the study (and the resulting peer-reviewed article) will yield interesting results.

This activity will be continued until the end of May 2014 (the end of the following bear hunt season – in order to be able to dissect additional hunted bears). In June 2014, the association will start working on the scientific article presenting the results of this activity.

Activity 2.5. Genetic study of bears:

The association has finished sending genetic samples to the Senckenberg Research Institute (Germany) in October 2012. In the period April 2010 – October 2012 they have acquired and sent for analysis a total of 57 genetic samples from brown bears in Romania, most coming from animals that have been legally harvested (the rest were from animals physically handled by them).

The study was carried out in co-operation by the Senckenberg Institute, Balkani Wildlife Society (Bulgaria) and the Milvus Group (Romania). Currently they are working on a joint publication by the three institutions – a short scientific paper presenting genetic evidence for the fact that in the past, a number of brown bears have been transferred from Romania to Bulgaria (as part of an agreement between the two communist regimes). The manuscript is in an advanced stage already.

Even though the research described above has ended, the association is continuously gathering additional genetic samples, for possible further studies. Since November 2012, they had acquired 15 new samples (again, either from harvested animals or from bears physically handled by them).

Objective 3: Securing a suitable habitat for the bears:

Activity 3.1. Inclusion into the Natura2000 network (European network of protected areas, designated on the basis of the EU’s Habitat Directive):

In November 2012, the Biogeographical Seminar for Romania's Natura2000 sites designated under the EU's Habitat Directive took place in Bucharest. Before the Seminar, members of the Milvus Group have prepared an extensive documentation for a significant number of species and habitats, arguing that the current Romanian network of protected areas is insufficient and poorly designated, thus new protected areas have to be established. Intense lobbying was carried out at the Seminar, where 4 members of the Milvus Group (including the current project's coordinator) were virtually the only representatives of the Romanian NGO community. Even though there is a strong feeling that the NGO arguments were based on scientific facts and were right, while the government's arguments were purely emotional and most of the time without any real background (not even on a purely logical level), the ETC commission's decisions have favored them almost on every single species and habitat, with very few exceptions. Thus it is virtually decided that there will be no additional Natura2000 sites designated for bears, with one possible exception.

As far as it is known, the EU is currently more interested in the improvement of the management of the existing Natura 2000 network, rather than the designation of new sites.

However, the association is currently working on a study of the existing Romanian PA system (all categories of protected areas) and its potential to (at least theoretically) ensure the conservation of the 3 large carnivore species present in the country (brown bear, wolf and Eurasian lynx). The study is done in co-operation with specialists from the University of Alberta (Canada). The resulting manuscript should be finalized and submitted for peer-review in August 2013 or at latest in early autumn 2013. Hopefully, this will serve as an additional scientific appeal for the designation of additional protected areas for the Romanian large carnivore species.

Activity 3.2. Mitigating the negative effects of the planned highway section crossing the site:

The monthly monitoring of the planned highway route within the 2 project areas has been carried out as foreseen. The association has 2 full years’ data from the field (24-24 datasets on bear movements and activity across the planned highway routes from each project site, in the period January 2011 – December 2012). The results of the study will be analyzed together with a specialist from the University of Alberta (Canada). A final manuscript on the findings will be submitted for peer-review before the end of 2013.

Also, they plan to monitor an additional 120 km of the planned highway crossing through the Romanian Eastern Carpathians’ bear habitats (basically the continuation of the 2 segments they have been monitoring for the last 24 months). This activity would be implemented in the autumn of 2013 – early 2014. They would use 2 complementary methods in the process: a genetic study based on hair collected through 100 barbed wire hair traps set in pre-established locations, and a complementary tracking process through the same sites monitored with the hair traps. A detailed methodology has already been elaborated for this specific survey, in co-operation with specialists from the University of Alberta. The results would again be published in a peer-review paper (article to be submitted in 2014). A separate funding request for this specific activity has already been submitted – a final answer is expected shortly.

These are the results of the activities foreseen in the project.

Besides these, there were some results not anticipated within the project.

In June 2012 two small bear cubs have been confiscated. The siblings (male and female) were kept illegally in a car repair shop in the city of Sighisoara. They ended up in the Orphaned Bear Cub Rehabilitation Center in Balan (Harghita county, Romania, operated by Leonardo Bereczky). The action was carried out with the help of the Police (Firearms and Ammunitions Directorate) and the Mures County Environmental Guard (a control body of the Ministry of the Environment). Both cubs stand very good chances to be successfully rehabilitated: after approx. 2 years spent in the Center, they will be released back into the wild (probably also fitted with collars – so that their behavior can be carefully monitored). Following their relocation to the Rehabilitation Center, they are already behaving as they should as this early age. The former “owners” were charged by the competent authorities (Police and Environmental Guards).

In early April 2013 the association managed to confiscate a small male bear cub that was kept illegally in a private home in the city of Sovata, by a local forester. The confiscation didn’t go smoothly at all: since the forester was an employee of the Romanian National Forest Administration (who knew about the cub being kept illegally), there was a considerable pressure they tried to exercise (by various means) in order to make the association drop the case. However, after a total of 3 days of struggling, they managed to finally take the animal from its previous “owner”.

The cub ended up in the Orphaned Bear Cub Rehabilitation Center in Balan (Harghita county, Romania, operated by Leonardo Bereczky). The action was carried out with the help of the Sovata town Police and the Mures County Environmental Guard (a control body of the Ministry of the Environment), and also with the “aid” of mass-media. He too will be released back into the wild, after approx. 2 years spent at the Center. The former “owner” was charged by the competent authorities – however, in the end, he got off without any serious consequences...
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