Brown bears living in Poland represent a small part of the Carpathian population, which currently extends over the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia. It is estimated to be over 8000 individuals. Although bears can be found along the Carpathian range, the distribution of breeding females is discontinuous. The population divides into three segments. The western segment covers most of Slovakia, and the Tatra Mountains and Beskid Żywiecki in Poland. The largest part of the Carpathian population inhabits the main Carpathian chain and extends from the Bieszczady region (encompassing Bieszczady Mountains and surrounding areas) and Slovakian “Poloniny” through Ukraine and Romania to Serbia. The third segment occupies the Apuseni Mountains in western Romania. The whole Carpathian population has been classified as “vulnerable” (at risk of being endangered); in some regions bears are locally endangered. The whole brown bear population in Poland is transboundary, thus bears are under various protection measures, depending on which side of the border they stay, and ranging from complete protection in Poland to protected, but game species in Slovakia or game species in Ukraine.
Brown bears, which once were found nearly across all Europe, disappeared from most regions of the continent by end of the 17th century. Already in the beginning of the XIX century, the western and eastern subpopulations of the northern Carpathians become isolated, which is reflected in their current genetic differentiation3. In Poland, after the World War II, bears persisted only in the Tatra and Bieszczady Mountains; their total numbers at that time were estimated in 10-14 individuals. Since then, the population started to recover slowly. According to the report on the conservation status of large carnivores in Europe for the European Commission, the number of bears in the Polish Carpathians was estimated to be 95 individuals in 2007. The most important population was noted in the Bieszczady region (66 individuals) and the second in the Tatra Mountains (12-15 individuals). In other bear refuges their number oscillates from 2 to 5 individuals. This estimation of bear numbers was based on annual questionnaire surveys sent to the Forest Administration and National Parks in areas of bear presence.
Information on the brown bear distribution are available in the Atlas of Polish Mammals.
In 2010, within the framework of the project for the preparation of “Management plan for the brown bear in Poland – a project”, a systematic bear hair sampling was conducted during all the year in the Tatra Mountains and Bieszczady region for population estimates based on molecular methods. The total number of individual bears identified by genotyping in 2010 was 20 in Tatra and 55 in the Bieszczady region. Of these 75 unique genotypes, a total of 33 individuals were recaptured throughout the whole year (6 bears in Tatra and 27 in Bieszczady). The population investigated is open, i.e., the bears are not confined into a determined area, delimited by topographical or other barriers, but they wander all over the place, including also the neighboring areas from Slovakia and Ukraine. Therefore, the number of individuals identified may include also bears that visit Poland occasionally and/or which have most of their home ranges in the neighboring countries. As the whole Polish population is transboundary and brown bears moved across the border, it is difficult to estimate the numbers of “Polish” bears, without a joint study with Slovakia and Ukraine. Further validations and analysis still going on, some jointly with Slovakia, will contribute to be more precise in the estimates.
The current distribution of brown bears in Poland was estimated for the purpose of the present plan on the basis of (1) our own research and observations carried out mainly in the Tatra mountains and the Bieszczady region, (2) the information obtained through questionnaires from the forestry districts and national parks located in the rest of the Polish Carpathians, (3) the location of damages caused by bears collected by the Regional Directorates of Environmental Protection, and (4) data on bear occurrence in the Beskid Śląski and Żywiecki provided by the Association for Nature “Wolf”. Only the most recent data, obtained in the period 2009-2011 were used to estimate the current bear distribution.
The permanent distribution is clearly discontinuous, with two main reproductive areas in Tatra (western segment) and Bieszczady region (eastern segment). The third area of permanent bear presence and occasional reproduction is Beskid Żywiecki. In other parts of the Polish Carpathians, especially in the region between Tatra and Bieszczady, bears are observed rather occasionally and, in some regions, they have not been observed at all in the last two years. Bears in Tatra and Beskid Żywiecki are parts of the western segment of the Carpathian population, while these from the Bieszczady region belongs to the eastern segment. The connectivity between the western and eastern segments seems to be very limited, not only in Poland, but also in Slovakia. Although the habitat in the linkage zone between Tatra and Bieszczady seems to be suitable, bears are not settling there. Dispersing individuals can be sometimes observed far from the areas of permanent presence, and in very exceptional occasions even in north-‐eastern Poland.