ROMANIAN BEARS

Group from Romania visits Montana to compare notes on brown bear issues
Monday, October 1, 2018

Photos courtesy of Gabriel Paun

Three brown bears are pictured in Romania on Feb. 25.

Gabriel Paun is pictured in 2015 in a Romanian forest that had been logged.

Brown bears in Romania are facing issues not unlike their grizzly bear counterparts in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: habitat destruction and increasing conflicts with humans.

Often, those going through the same issues as you are the ones who can teach you the most. At least that’s the mindset behind a group of Romanian officials who recently traveled to Montana to learn about what steps people take to co-exist with brown bears.

In a tour of Montana, the group of 11 Romanians, including grizzly activists and government officials, visited places designed to limit human-bear conflict. They included ranches with electric fences of at least three wires, as well as bearproof garbage containers and a bear-proof warehouse where roadkill and domestic animals that die of natural causes are composted.

“We have a lack of resources, but (Romanians and bears) should be coexisting,” said Gabriel Paun, a founder of Agent Green, an environmental group that sponsored the trip along with the Humane Society.

Romania, an eastern European country of 20 million people, has around 7,000 brown bears — ursos arctos, the same species as the grizzly bear.

Those bears are in the Carpathian Mountains — an ecosystem slightly larger than the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem but which supports 10 times the number of bears.

Like in Yellowstone, those bears are mostly living in the mountains, places where they are safer from conflicts with humans. But that doesn’t mean the brown bears and humans don’t mix.

“They don’t want to stay in the mountains, but it’s safer for them,” Paun said.

The biggest threat to brown bears in Romania for decades was also the reason the small eastern European country still has a substantial population of the species.

Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who ruled for more than 30 years, is credited with killing around 400 bears, including dozens in a single day. Paun explained that Ceausescu, who is credited with many hunting records, wanted big bears to kill. In order to maximize the bears size, Ceausescu did two things — he left large tracts of forest untouched and had feeding stations for the bears.

And he was successful in killing bears as large as 1,400 pounds.

But three decades after Ceausescu died in 1989, those 220,000 hectares of primeval forest that the dictator preserved are now facing threats from logging.

“He was a bad man, but he was good for bears,” Paun said.

Or at least those he kept alive.

After Ceausescu’s reign ended, trophy hunting increased to the point where there was a quota of 550 bears killed per year. At least until 2016 when the government decided to end trophy hunting.

But that decision, along with the ongoing logging of primeval forest, has created more issues.

After Romania recently banned trophy hunting, the government stopped a longtime policy of feeding bears, and as a result, they are increasingly gravitating toward communities, including agricultural communities, to find food. Recently, there has been a push toward a hunt, partially because of that expansion, Paun said.

“The public sees that and then thinks there’s a problem,” Paun said.

Bears also seek out garbage areas, which they use as feeding grounds, and Paun said many residents take selfies with bears at those areas.

Despite having a much larger bear population, Romania doesn’t have many of the safeguards in place that Montana has. Many of those steps — bear spray, electric fences, bear-proof garbage areas — seem obvious, but have not been implemented.

“This offers a chance to see a place with similar problems, but where people do things,” Paun said of the group’s Montana visit.

In Romania, guns are much less common, which has made human-bear conflicts much less deadly.

“We have no bear spray, but we have no guns,” Paun said.

Louisa Willcox, a grizzly bear advocate who helped organize the Romanians’ visit, said though the Romanians came here to learn from Montana, we could learn a thing or two from them.

During their trip, the Romanians visited an area near Glacier National Park where there are 60 bears in a basin that could support many more. The locals who had helped the species recover in the area were proud of the high number, but Willcox said many of the Romanians stayed silent.

“It was kind of embarrassing. They didn’t realize how many bears they have in Romania,” Willcox said. “They have 10 times the number of brown bears. They must be doing something right.”