Photo: Miha Krofel
The bear in Slovenia
Although the bear was seriously endangered in Slovenian multiple times, it never went extinct as it did in other parts of Europe (Jerina et al., 2003). At the end of the 19th and in the beginning of the 20th century the size of the population was estimated to 30 to 40 specimens (Krže, 1988). Bears survived in sparsely populated parts of south and south-eastern Slovenia. After they were protected in 1931 their numbers began to slowly increase. At the end of fifties the size of the population was estimated to 160 animals (Jerina at al., 2003). In 1966 the core bear management area of 3500 km2 was established in the south, non-conflict (sparsely populated, not a lot of cattle) part of Slovenia. The yearlong protection of females accompanied by cubs, regular supply of food at feeding sites (the supplemental feeding) and the introduction of a yearly harvest quota were probably important triggers of the fast bear population growth and its expansion toward the north and west. In addition to this harvest was only permitted from 1 October until 31 April the following year. Outside of this area harvest was permitted throughout the year. In 1991 they also protected bears outside of the core area in order to increase the dispersion of specimens from the Dinaric Alps to Alps. In 1995 a decision was adopted to expand the core area to approximately 5,200 km2 and it still applies to this day (Kaczensky, 2000).
The increasing number of bears did not go without consequences. The number of sightings and signs of the bear’s presence increased. This caused people who lived in the vicinity of areas where the bear was seen to feel uneasy, afraid and adverseness. Conflicts also arose because of the increased number of bear attacks on cattle. Media’s adverse attitude and reporting regarding the bear also put additional strain on the situation (Jerina et al., 2003). It is known that co-habitation of the man and the bear, the same as with all other large carnivores, causes problems on both sides. It is important to take into consideration that the majority of these issues may be solved or alleviated without drastic decrease of the population of this “problematic” species (Jerina et al., 2003).
Estimates regarding the number of bears in Slovenia vary significantly. Jerina and Adamič (2008) estimate that in 1998 the population consisted of 290 specimens, it was then gradually increasing until it reached 370 bears in 2006. In 2007 it was established with a non-invasive DNA research method that there were 434 (394-475) bears in Slovenia. The figures are slightly lower than official estimates of the Slovenia Forest Service provided together with the annual proposals for harvest of large carnivores. For example, for 2007 they estimated that there were between 500 and 700 specimens. Brown bear harvest has been intensive for quite some time. The fact that the population size is not decreasing can be credited to high current fertility and influx of emigrants from Croatia. Significant harvest of younger bears means that new bears are not growing up to reach reproductive age. The majority of the current reproductive class will grow old in the future which could cause rapid decline in the birth rate. This means that in order to preserve the brown bear in Slovenia it is not only important to know their number but also other characteristics and dynamics of the population (Jerina and Adamič, 2008).
Distribution of the brown bear in Slovenia
The Slovenian bear is part of the Alpine-Dinaric-Pindus population which spans from the Eastern Alps in Austria and Northeast Italy to the Pindus Mountains in Greece (Swenson et al., 2000). The area spans over the following countries: Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Greece (Swenson et al., 2000). Slovenia is located on the northwest edge of dense area of the Dinaric brown bear population and is therefore westernmost part of the brown bear population area in the Central Europe (Brown Bear Management Strategy (Ursus arctos) in Slovenia, 2002).
The central area of distribution of the brown bear in Slovenia is the High Karst. This is the area of dense mixed forests with rugged terrain and poor visibility (Simonič, 2003). The most common group is Abieti-Fagetum-Dinaricum in which beech trees (Fagus silvatica) and fir trees (Abies alba) prevail, but in stands they are also mixed with spruce (Picea abies), maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) and elm trees (Ulmus sp.) (Kaczensky, 2000). In this area the bear has never been completely exterminated (Jerina et al., 2003). We can divide it into three larger parts (Simonič, 2003):
- WESTERN HIGH KARST (937 km2) covers the area north of the Ljubljana – Postojna – Razdrto highway. This area is sparsely populated with bears in spite of the high quality forest habitat, particularly on the plateaus of Hrušica and Nanos.
- NOTRANJSKA RANGE (1306 km2) covers the western slopes of Javorniki, Snežnik and the Iška gorge. This region is particularly important for conservation of large carnivores since it is contiguous with Gorski kotar in Croatia along the entirety of its south border. In this area, in contrast to the Kočevje area, there are virtually no agricultural pressures.
- KOČEVJE – BELA KRAJINA RANGE (2400km2) is the largest part of the bear’s central area. It spans from the Iška gorge to Bela krajina. From the ecological standpoint it has the largest carrying capacity, however, the bear is at more risk here than in other two areas due to an increasing number of sheep and goats in the area and other agricultural activities in the forested area.
- Jerina K., Debeljak M., Džeroski S., Kobler A., Adamič M. 2003. Modeling the brown bear population in Slovenia. A tool in the conservation management of treatened species. Elsevier. Ecological modelling., 170: 453-469
- Swenson J.E., Gerstl N., Dahle B., Zedrosser A. 2000. Action plan for the conservation of the brown bear (Ursus arctos) in Europe. Council of Europe, Strassburg, France.