Story of the brown bear in Naliboki Forest and the peculiarity of the on-going recolonizing of the terrain by the species

This post is not just about the  story  of brown bears in Naliboki Forest, but mainly about the registered peculiarity of the on-going recolonizing of this terrain by the species.  At the same time, the whole story of brown bears in Naliboki Forest (as far as it is available to learn) is interesting too and will add extra information for better realizing of the current situation.

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In early 2000s in Belarus  I elaborated the projects how to reintroduce and restore  the brown bear local populations in two forest massifs. While talking to bear specialists, I realized that one of the very important demands to start a new local population of bears is to release more or less equal number of adult males and females even better more adult females, because during mating season  adult males that appeared without females in heat will migrate faraway and disappear by this way. To have more adult females than males will plausibly favour the local population progress, because one male may mate with several females during mating season. Anyway, at that time it became clear for me that prevalence of males during initial stage of the local population recovering is a pit-fall way to be avoided.

The process of brown bear recolonization in Naliboki Forest, which we try tracing in details by extensive camera-trapping and track registrations,  suggests something quite opposite. During the last three years including three warm seasons we registered only big adult males with rather stable home ranges year-round (including hibernation and mating season) and only anecdotal information on presence of females with or without cubs.

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Bear male

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During the summer of 2018 we have regularly registered (mostly by camera-traps) seven quite big males and one or may be two quite small individuals of unknown sex. The male home ranges  slightly overlapped and occupied the core area of Naliboki Forest (see the distribution map below). There was information about possible presence of two adult females with one and two cubs, but our repeated attempts to find their tracks or get photos of them (56 camera-traps were in use) failed to locate them. We started to be in doubt about truthfulness of the respondent information about those adult females with cubs. So we plausibly had a stable distribution of adult male bears in Naliboki Forest this year.

Brown bear distribution in Naliboki Forest  during sumnmer of 2018
Brown bear distribution in Naliboki Forest during summer of 2018

During the warm season of 2017 in Naliboki Forest I registered  five adult male bears only. Also, again there was one anecdotal information about presence of adult female with two cubs at the central-eastern edge of the forest massive at the Naliboki  village that was not confirmed by our checking the habitats.  It is worthwhile to notice that these  adult males were later found on their  home ranges during the summer 2018.

During the warm season of 2016 in Naliboki Forest I registered  only four males: three big ones and one markedly smaller; and again their territories were the same as later in 2017-2018.

During the warm season of 2015, 6 to 8 brown bears were registered in the whole terrain of Naliboki Forest: 3-5 quite big males on the same territories as later in 2016-2018 and one female. Also, there was obtained information about plausible presence of one adult female with two cubs that we failed to confirm or reject.

In the autumn of 2014 in Naliboki Forest I censused three males and one female brown bears in the core area, and plausibly there was one more subadult at the forest massif edge.

By summarizing the above data, it looks like on the initial stage when brown bear recolonize a new area, mostly adult males come; they occupy the habitats forming their home ranges with a slight overlapping and live on these territories stably (even in mating season) by waiting for coming females that they will accept on their home ranges. So, funny,  human elaborates brown bear reintroduction guidelines, but the species in its natural expansion goes by rather opposite way.

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Looking in the brown bear past in the terrain of Naliboki Forest, I can mention the following information.

During  Great Lithuanian time in 16th-18th centuries brown bears densely populated  Naliboki Forest and neighbouring forest massifs. There are quite a lot of mentioning  about hunting on the species in the game report documents of Radzivil magnat husbandry.  One of these huntings took place in the Dzierawnaya subhusbandry of Radzivil in 1757 at the vodstup (a special game-protected area) of Pniova Vada, when Heranim Radzivil killed 4 brown bears, 8 wild boars and one red deer. Kryshtaf  Zavisha in the 1710s in the north-eastern part of Naliboki Forest nearby Bakshty or to the south of the Chapun’ village many times during one hunting killed one or more brown bears with the help of peasants. For example, he recalled how in the middle of February in 1714 during three battue hunt-drives in the forest nearby Bakshty they killed two subadult brown bears, and their mother broke through harbourers, but then a pack of dogs in the second hunt-drive restrained and killed the bear mother, then in the third one two large brown bears were killed. Or, for example, Kryshtaf Zavisha wrote that only around Bakshty in the winter of 1716 nine bears and eight elks were killed. In this case, brown bears were chased by a great number of peasants to the place of the shooters’ location, who killed them with well-aimed shots. Each of these shooters had a pitchfork in a case of wounded brown bear attack, so that he was able to finish it with this weapon. Often, there practiced more severe hunting for the brown bear in a den with a spear. The dogs turned the bear out of the den. The furious bear rapidly attacked the hunter that was waiting nearby with a spear and a blade. At the moment when the bear stood on its hind paws in front of the hunter for the final killing throw, the brave hunter thrust a spear to the bear’s heart, and the end of the spear rested against the ground. The hunter, not dexterous and brave enough, did not have a chance to survive in that cruel combat. Also, the slowness of dogs could determine the win of the brown bear and the death of the hunter. To injure the brown bear, weaken it and deprive the rapidity, the hunters used a gun beforehand, and a blade was the last chance for a hunter to survive.

In that Great Lithuanian time in Naliboki Forest the permanent charge of Radzivil’s beekeepers was the protections of beehives from destruction by brown bears, that also suggest how many of them populated the forest.

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Winter hunting of shliakhtich (a representative of the middle class in Great Lithuania) for the brown bear at hibernating den with a spear, mid 17th century. Special dogs turned the bear out of the den. The furious bear tends to attack the hunter who waiting nearby with a spear. At the moment when the bear stood on its hind paws in front of the hunter for the final killing throw, the brave hunter thrust a spear to the bear’s heart, and the end of the spear rested against the ground. Drawing by Aliaksandr Mitianin.

Until the Second World War more or less stable number of brown bears populated Naliboki Forest. According to the information that was obtained from old local people (mostly from Baliaslaw Sadowski), brown bears and signs of their activity were more often occurred along valley of the Biarezina river; also at the forest edge, where rural terrains were interspersed with fragmented woods; and at the two most extensive swamps, i.e. one in the south-western part of the forest (the localities of Hala Balota, Junitsa, Kryvukha, Krasnaje, Kazialiets, Symonava, Svistunova Hrada, Vysokaja Hrada, Pawdniovaje Wiunishcha, Barki, Shubinski Bor, Halajbova Hrada, Chuhurka, Rabachova, Drazdy) and the south-eastern part of the forest (the localities of Khmielishcha, S’viaty Kalodziezh, Ardynishcha, Vohminy, Dzieraminishcha, Chornaya, Krasny Bor). Baliaslaw Sadowski told that approximately in the late 1930s in the whole Naliboki Forest there were 30-50 brown bears.

During the Second World War, perhaps, all brown bears that lived in Naliboki Forest were killed for getting meat by people, who hided in the forest for surviving and who participated the war and stayed in the forest (i.e. partisans). During the late 1950s migrant brown bears (perhaps, transient individuals from more northern forests) became to populate Naliboki Forest again and in 1960s the population of approximately 20-30 individuals appeared there. According to Lienard Yurevich words one summer (perhaps, 1968) there were registered four mother brown bears having 2-3 cubs. This feature suggests a high reproductive rate in the recovering population. However, as far as I enquired from locals Lienard Yurevich, Edzik Khmara and Baliaslaw Sadowski, during the 1970s the brown bears were gradually poached. In that period the last breeding of brown bears (mother with two cubs) was registered in the localities of Ryhoraw Barok – Kaliuhi – Karytsitski Bor in 1974.
Afterwards until 2011 the species was rarely present in Naliboki Forest from time to time, and mostly there were lone individuals that plausibly arrived from the more northern forests. Usually such transient brown bears stayed in Naliboki Forest not long time (less than a year). For instance, in the mid-summer of 2005 subadult brown bear appeared in the localities of Tsyhany, Yatskava, Rudnia, Yahadzina, Ploski Bor, Barsukovina, Masty and Liakhavy Hory. The last record of the bear was in the Masty locality in October and afterwards it had disappeared.

In the warm season (since April) of 2011 more or less at the same time two adult individuals male and female came to Naliboki Forest and gradually settled nearby: the female in the localities of Nizki Bor, Pawnochnaye Wiunishcha, Kupalishcha, Masty, Tavaryshchyna, Liakhavy Hory, Dalki, Zabalats’; the male in the localities of Novy Dvor, Stas’kava, Koz’liki, Ryhoraw Barok, Kaliuhi, Karytsitski Bor, Vajnilawshchyna, Valiavatka, Zapruddzie, Navusts’, Zabalats’, Kupalishcha. After the hibernation in the warm season of 2012 in Naliboki Forest the same two bears in the same areas as during the previous summer were registered.

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Pair of brown bear during mating season

During the winter of 2012-2013 the male hibernated in the Kaliuhi locality among old spruce windfall happened 5-7 years ago and this windfall was already overgrown with young spruces. The female hibernated in similar habitat in the Tavaryshchyna locality. It gave birth during the hibernation, and in April the female was observed with two cubs. Interestingly, that during the period of April-mid May the mother did four more spring dens that looked like hibernating ones. At least, until the beginning of July the family stayed on the area of up to 4 square kilometers in the Tavaryshchyna locality that is quiet and rarely visited by people. The area is prevailed by old spruce forest, have three clearcuts with early reforestation and there are drainage canals surrounded by black alder wood.

During the summer and autumn of 2013 two new brown bears came to Naliboki Forest. One of them big male occupied the large area in the localities of Yunitsa, Zhabrachykha, Sukhi Barok, Rabachova, Drazdy, Stashykha, Vajnilawshchyna, Barsucha, Karytsietski Bor, Karytsishcha, Kliatsishcha, Kryvukha, Svistunova Hrada, Vysokaya Hrada, Kurhany, Krasnaye, Hala Balota.

The further story of recolonization of Naliboki Forest by brown bears you already know.

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