Brown bears went extinct in Białowieża Forest in the end of the XIX century. The last bear was killed in 1879, exactly 140 years ago. Since then, bears have been visiting Białowieża sporadically, but never staying.
Decades after the last bear was killed, in 1908, an incomplete historical document suggests that a bear or its tracks were recorded in Białowieża Forest. In 1937, the decision to reintroduce bears in Białowieża Forest was made, motivated by conservation purposes. It represented the first reintroduction programme of a large carnivore in the world (see Samojlik et al. 2018). That winter, the bear “Lola” gave birth to two cubs in a special cage placed in the heart of Białowieża National Park. This method, known as soft-release, allowed the two cubs born captive to gradually experience and go into the wild by themselves, without much contact with humans. Both bears managed to survive. At that time, the release of captive animals was the only option (nowadays, wild animals are captured and translocated to the area of reintroduction-known as hard-release). In the end of 1939, when Soviet troops occupied Białowieża Forest, Lola was freed from her cage and the reintroduction program abandoned. The outbreak of World War II spoiled what might have been a successful project. Reproduction in the wild was documented for 8 years and bear presence for 13.
Since 1950 bears have been recorded occasionally in Białowieża Forest. In 1963, bear tracks were observed in the Belarusian part of Białowieża Forest (Buchalczyk 1980) and then again a bear was observed in 2003 in the Wild Swamp area in Belarus. In June 2010, an unconfirmed observation of a hunter placed a bear in the Polish side of the Forest, close to the village Babia Góra. For that reason, the management plan for the brown bear Ursus arctos in Poland, still not implemented, recommended to include the Podlasie region in the monitoring program (Selva et al. 2011). It has been only recently that a bear and its signs are observed on repeated occasions on both sides of the border and for more than a month now. In the beginning of June this year the bear and its tracks were observed in the Belarusian side, and on 14th June presumably the same animal was seen in the Polish side, still very close to the border. In the night from 14th to 15th June, a photo-trap of the Mammal Research Institute PAS registered a male bear (see Mammal Research Institute website).
It is nothing strange that large carnivores suddenly appear in places they have been absent for years. They can travel very long distances, even in heavily humanized landscapes (see Bartón et al. 2019). For instance, the wolf “Alan” crossed all Poland, from Germany to Belarus, in 2009 in less than two months. Bears, especially young males, can disperse long-distances in their search for mates. We documented the longest dispersal of a brown bear in continental Europe. The bear “Iwo” moved from Tatra to the Gorgany mountains in Ukraine, crossing Slovakia twice and visiting Hungary in his trip. He travelled more than 3500 km, crossing roads and other barriers, during the 2-year period we could track him thanks to a GPS-collar. In straight line, the distance between the two locations farthest apart in his trip was 360 km. Unfortunately, most long-distance dispersers end dead before they can reproduce and “connect” genetically different populations or start new ones (Bartoń et al. 2019).
About 170 km separate Białowieża Forest from Naliboki Forest in Belarus, a distance a dispersing bear can easily travel. Bears seem to have recolonized Naliboki Forest recently. Since 2011 they are permanently in the area and their numbers are increasing (see blog by Vadim Sidorovich). Therefore, it will not be strange that bears will start to appear in Białowieża and other Podlasian forests with higher frequency than up to now. Bears are recolonizing areas where they used to be present decades or centuries ago across all Europe (Chapron et al. 2012). Białowieża Forest is at a bear-trip distance and offers a very good habitat to live and, most importantly, also to reproduce, as shown by the habitat model for the species in Poland (Fernández et al. 2012). Natural come-backs of species are always better than reintroductions. In 2012, an attempt to reintroduce bears in the Belarusian side of the Białowieża Forest was abandoned. This was a good decision, as bears have shown they can reach the area themselves.
Due to the high conservation value of long-distance dispersers, it would be good to prohibit ban hunting temporarily while the bear stays in Białowieża Forest, in order to avoid accidental shooting. This measure was taken In Hungary when “Iwo” was there to make sure the bear could continue his trip. People not used to coexist with bears should be well informed about how to behave during encounters with them. It is important to keep calm and follow basic rules (see Carpathian Brown Bear Project website). Probably the most important message to people is: never feed bears! Responsible institutions and persons should take the appropriate steps for a proper management of waste and rubbish and to start implementing methods of damage prevention, e.g. in apiaries, in Białowieża Forest.
If the bear population in Belarus will keep increasing, and the connectivity of the landscape will not get worse (which is difficult in the era of road and infrastructure expansion), bears could, and probably will, settle in Białowieża Forest. This will be very good news: for the ecosystem, that will see restored functions and interactions that were lost; for the bears, mostly inhabiting mountain areas, this would mean an increase in their lowland populations. As for us, humans, this is a good opportunity to learn to share the space and coexist with other species. Białowieża Forest is a reference in conservation at the global scale, and could be an example to follow in this respect as well.
Bartoń K.A., Zwijacz-Kozica T., Zięba F., Sergiel A., Selva N. 2019. Bears without borders: Long-distance movement in human-dominated landscapes. Global Ecology and Conservation 17: e00541.
Buchalczyk T. 1980. The brown bear in Poland. International Conference on Bear Research and Management 4: 229-232.
Chapron G. et al. 2014. Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscapes. Science 346: 1517-1519.
Fernández N., Selva N., Yuste C., Okarma H., Jakubiec Z. 2012. Brown bears at the edge: Modeling habitat constraints at the periphery of the Carpathian population. Biological Conservation 153: 134-142.
https://carpathianbear.pl/niedzwiedzie-brunatne/spotkania-z-niedzwiedziami/. Carpathian Brown Bear Project website [Accessed 17.06.2019]
https://ibs.bialowieza.pl/8571-2/. Mammal Research Institute Polish Academy of Sciences [Accessed: 17.06.2019]
https://sidorovich.blog/2018/10/07/story-of-the-brown-bear-in-naliboki-forest-and-the-peculiarity-of-the-on-going-recolonizing-of-the-terrain-by-the-species/. Blog “Zoology by Vadim Sidorovich” [Accessed 17.06.2019]
Samojlik T., Selva N., Daszkiewicz P., Fedotova A., Wajrak A., Kuijper D.P.J. 2018. Lessons from Białowieża Forest on the history of protection and the world’s first reintroduction of a large carnivore. Conservation Biology 32: 808-816.
Selva N., Zwijacz Kozica T., Sergiel A., Olszańska A., Zięba F. 2011. Management plan for the brown bear Ursus arctos in Poland-draft. Warsaw University of Life Sciences, Warsaw, Poland. [in Polish with an English version]