Insights into brown bear conservation in Romania

Mammal species that are extinct or endangered in other regions of Europe are still present in the Romanian Carpathians (Primack et al. 2008). Among them is the brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos, Linnaeus 1758), a key species in European ecosystems (Rozylowicz et al. 2011). The mixture of forest habitats, pastures, meadows, orchards and other land still traditionally farmed, creates a typical varied multicultural landscape in this part of Eastern Europe (Maanen et al. 2006, Roellig et al. 2014) that has allowed humans and carnivores to coexist for centuries (Dorresteijn et al. 2016), with the existence of predators molding social traditions (Pop et al. 2013a). Research in Western and Central Europe shows that the brown bear can survive in a human-dominated landscape (Linnell et al. 2007, Chapron et al. 2014), but nevertheless, the long-term perspective seems to be affected by continuous habitat degradation and fragmentation (Preatoni et al. 2005, Kaczensky et al. 2012, Di Minin et al. 2016) and especially by the various perceptions and behaviours of stakeholders (Can et al. 2014).

The brown bear, one of the four large carnivores in Europe (Chapron et al. 2014), has been targeted all over Europe by conservation programmes, helping to maintain a suitable conservation status for most of the populations in Europe (Kaczensky et al. 2012) and hence keeping their status on the IUCN Red List at an assessed level of ”Least Concern” on the European continent (McLellan et al. 2017). Important resources are allocated, mainly in developed countries, to addressing sociological and environmental problems related to the large carnivores, including the brown bear (Blanco 2012, Di Minin et al. 2016). Efforts are made by wildlife researchers worldwide to offer science-based solutions to policymakers and stakeholders, in order to ensure the long-term survival of the species (Boitani and Powell 2012). This is a lesson that the Romanian managers and policymakers need to learn if we are to continue to be proud that we live in the last wild frontier of Europe (Hartel et al. 2019). For this reason, we must be aware of various relevant positive and negative experiences.

In Romania, management of, and research into, large mammals (including the large carnivores) has been conducted as part of the forest resources management and research system (Cotta et al. 2001). Following the spirit of communist production targets (Salvatori et al. 2002), the present inherited paradigm of wildlife management is based on regarding game species as a resource that needs to be economically exploited, even though society’s perspective on the topic is unknown, mainly due to a lack of transparency in wildlife management (Hartel et al. 2019). One cause of the limited brown bear information in Romania is the lack of clear, assumed objectives underpinning the implementation of different research studies and contributing ultimately to the bottom-up planning of various management strategies (Popescu et al. 2016) for the conservation of the species in the long term. This lack of specific objectives is a result of the pressure to increase the game revenue as the costs of managing wildlife increase (author’s personal observations). To maintain activities, wildlife management was diverted from an ecological and social approach towards a productive approach, centred on the game units’ rents, taxes, and quotas (Salvatori et al. 2002), even though some specialists have been arguing (moderately) against this policy. Having multiple goals for species management is recommended (Boitani et al. 2015) but is feasible only if the (1) decisions are based on reliable information (Darimont et al. 2018), (2) if their use/non-use does not negatively influence the species, the ecosystems or human society (Trouwborst et al. 2017) and (3) if they do not represent the decisions of a single professional group only (Artelle et al. 2013, Hartel et al. 2019). Stakeholders and policymakers in Romania argue about whether, in order to have a competitive economy, we must compromise on biodiversity conservation. This debate between policymakers and various social groups has evolved over the years in an ineffective way (Hartel et al. 2019), based on questions such as: “Why do we need to protect the large carnivores when the Western developed countries did not?” or “What is more important, people’s well-being or animal welfare?”. These questions belong to the theories of utilitarianism and anthropocentrism (Vucetich et al. 2018), formulated to serve specific interests (Darimont et al. 2018), and they often fuel endless public debates during electoral campaigns. The interest of different stakeholders, other than hunters and game managers (historically dealing with the species) (Pop et al. 2013a), in the management and conservation of the brown bear, began to grow with the accession of Romania to the European Union. The general public and some professional groups began to discuss new objectives and conservation measures for the brown bear population (Hartel et al. 2019), and pressure was put on the authorities to implement proper management solutions. Consequently, all interest groups, and especially policymakers, are interested in information on the species, such as the range and habitats/resource use, the size and dynamics of the population, and the threats and how they impact on the species’ future (Trouwborst et al. 2017). To clarify these aspects, a manager should consider the main characteristics of a species’ population: (1) abundance, (2) occupancy and distribution, and (3) habitat quality (Boitani and Powell 2012), mainly because the dynamics of each species’ population is directly related to its spatial distribution and individual movements caused by internal and external pressures on the population (Kernohan et al. 2001). In addition, human presence is a key factor influencing the habitat, spatial distribution, and individual movements of brown bears (Martin et al. 2010).

In the Romanian context, the conservation status of the brown bear as a key species in forest ecosystems in Romania (Rozylowicz et al. 2011), was directly related to the centralized and strictly controlled game management (Micu 1998, Cotta et al. 2001) and to land use and the presence of appropriate habitats (Maanen et al. 2006, Pop et al. 2012, Roellig et al. 2014). Indirectly, the human acceptance of bears and the traditional means of farm protection helped to maintain a level of human-bear coexistence (Salvatori et al. 2002) that was higher than in other parts of Europe (Pop et al. 2013a). Nevertheless, in the last decades, decisive factors postponed the transfer from a hunting-based paradigm (based on the communist-era strategy of imposing wildlife management as a key economic branch of the forestry system) to a style of management fulfilling the present and future ecological and social requirements of a European country, based on robust scientific information (Trouwborst et al. 2017). In 2016, the debates evolved into a conflict between stakeholders, as a result of the ban on hunting bears (Hartel et al. 2019), a practice that was the main driver of the bear’s historical management. The promoters of hunting suggested that the decision followed a biocentric perspective on the species, while the supporters of the ban suggested that the decision was needed to protect the species, which was currently under pressure due to economic reasons. Both groups failed to use reliable science-based information in the debate, (e.g., peer-reviewed articles and best practices), therefore it looks that the momentum to reset Romanian wildlife management and conservation and to implement science-based management (Popescu et al. 2019) is lost. The present risk to the species is that the level of coexistence between humans and bears will be difficult to preserve in the absence of arguments accessible to both decision-makers and the public (Hartel et al. 2019), those arguments should cover not just ecological aspects but social and economic aspects too.

At present, the scientific literature dedicated to the brown bear in Romania is limited in quantity and quality. One of the main causes is the current state of the management system, developed more than a half a century ago, that is now kept alive within an administrative, (i.e., the development of the Natura 2000 network), ecological, (i.e., increasing pressure on resources), social, (i.e., diversification of hunting-ground management) and economic, (i.e., profit as an indicator of success) framework, that is completely new, still centralized, but with clear practical manifestations of regionalization (Hartel et al. 2019). Research projects on the brown bear were mainly carried out by research organizations in association with the central authorities, and the results of the studies were mainly published in specialized forestry and game management journals and magazines. More consistent results and publications resulted from various conservation projects (Salvatori et al. 2002), facilitating master’s and doctoral theses, but they did not lead to structural reform of the research into, and management of, the species in Romania. In our days, estimation of the population size is still carried out by “counting” tracks on snow, leading to significant errors in population evaluation (Kaczensky et al. 2012, Popescu et al. 2016), human-bear conflicts are resolved by extracting a bear from the population, and the quality of habitats is expressed in equivocal ”optimum” indices. All these are implemented at the game management unit level, which is a completely unsuitable management unit for scientific studies (Popescu et al., 2017).

Increasing the level of local knowledge to fill the existing informational gaps is therefore not merely a desideratum for scientific claims (Hartel et al. 2019). In the context of the current stakeholder conflict (caused by brown bear hunting in the autumn of 2016), the present management of the species can be classified as “political population” management, the term “political population” being defined by Darimont et al. (2018) as a population whose attributes are set to serve political interests or interest groups. We can state that the actual management is an unfit compromise between a low level of ecological information and the need to respond to stakeholder demands. By presenting the social and administrative context, we make a case for the strong need to increase the quality of the ecological information on the Carpathian brown bear population (Popescu et al. 2016) and disagree with the public/political debate based on speculation (Hartel et al. 2019). There is consequently a need to constantly improve knowledge about the species (Kaczensky et al. 2012) and to develop new tools and methods for collecting and analyzing the proper information (Popescu et al. 2016) for specific objectives.

Another important pillar of species conservation is the fact that any planning for brown bear conservation activities requires a deeper integration with human activities (Linnell et al. 2007, Rozylowicz et al. 2011, Blanco 2012, Chapron et al. 2014, Boitani et al. 2015), and in order to maintain the species conservation status, human activities should take the presence of the species into account (Di Minin et al. 2016). This requires an upgraded approach: (1) the Romanian bear population must be viewed and analyzed on a large scale and in a transdisciplinary fashion (Di Minin et al. 2016, Nita et al. 2016, Hartel et al. 2019), regardless of the administrative boundaries (Blanco 2012) represented by wildlife management units, villages or counties (Pop et al. 2013b, Popescu et al. 2016) and (2) strategies must be planned using a bottom-up approach (Davis et al. 2002), considering primarily the ecological and social aspects. In addition, the Romanian bear population is part of a larger Carpathian population (Kaczensky et al. 2012) and this implies the sharing of transboundary responsibilities with neighbouring countries (Blanco 2012).

A good approach in this direction is to constantly improve the local knowledge on the species ecology (Popescu et al. 2016) and resource use (Rozylowicz et al. 2011), and to share the information with stakeholders (Hartel et al. 2019) by adapting and using methods and techniques that have proved their effectiveness in other regions (Pop et al. 2013b). To achieve the goal of developing a suitable conservation model, the process requires at least three stages: (1) obtaining reliable science-based information (Di Minin et al. 2016, Popescu et al. 2016, Hartel et al. 2019), (2) obtaining an agreement with stakeholders (Linnell et al. 2007) and (3) involving the public and investors in lobbying for the new policies (Can et al. 2014). Species conservation should be based on scientific information and implemented with community involvement (Hartel et al. 2019).

Who would benefit directly from robust studies on the Romanian Eastern Carpathian brown bear population? The main beneficiaries are the wildlife managers, separated according to Romanian legislation into governmental organizations, game managers, and protected area managers (Pop et al. 2013b). They share the same goal of conservation, but as has been observed within the wildlife conservation professional community, they do not share the same perspective on how to do it (Lute et al. 2018). With reliable information for their use, the managers can and should serve the social interest accordingly. For the policymakers (belonging to various other social/interest groups) these conflicts should be proof that the question is not about who should get involved (typically for centralized or ”captured” governments) in the process of improving the conservation of the brown bear, but about how the entities involved should work and at what scale (Hartel et al. 2019). In a workshop organized by the EU Platform on Coexistence between People and Large Carnivores in June 2017 in Bucharest, the participants identified several priorities including (1) creating an inclusive, transparent process to address effectively the problems of large carnivores, (2) developing a clear policy for decisions on managing large carnivores and (3) improving the monitoring methodology for large carnivores. Furthermore, wildlife managers (game managers or protected area managers), researchers, and other stakeholders have agreed that “…large carnivores should be determined on the basis of sound scientific evidence using best available and reliable data. This should involve continued research, development, and integration of monitoring methods involving all interest groups in the collection methods.” (joint statement adopted by members present at the Platform on Coexistence between People and Large Carnivores in June 2017, Bucharest).

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