Brown bears in Estonia

The brown bear population in Estonia

The brown bear (Ursus arctos) population in Estonia is a part of the large fragmented Eurasian population, constituting a piece of its northwesternmost branch. The large forested region in northeastern Estonia has been a core area for bears since the Holocene. Although half of the country is covered by forest, suitable habitats for bears are limited. Extensive forest clearance and human disturbance are major threats to Estonia’s brown bear population. Counting and measuring of bear tracks have been used to monitor bear population in Estonia, resulting in a minimum estimate of 231 brown bears in 1998. Estimates based on reports from hunting organizations produced a number close to 600.

ANALYSIS OF THREATS

  • Habitat fragmentation and loss.— Although about half of the territory of Estonia is covered by forest, suitable habitats for brown bear are limited. In Russia, bears are known to prefer high density forest plots without clearcuts and with minimum human disturbance within an area of more than 10,000 ha (Pazhetnov 1990). Thus, extensive forest clearance and human disturbance could become a major threat for bears in Estonia. If intensive forestry continues, especially logging of climax forest, bear habitats can become fragmented or even eliminated. However, bear population response to intensive forest exploitation has not been specifically studied in Estonia. Therefore, it is very important to investigate brown bear home range and habitat selection to make accurate management decisions. Habitat loss through agricultural and urban area development is not a threat at the moment. However, if the economic situation changes in favor of agriculture, it will take a relatively short period to decrease suitable habitat for bears.
  • Reduction of food resources.—Oats are an important autumn food for bears in Estonia (Kaal 1980), and a decrease in availability of agricultural crops in most locations could affect brown bear access to pre-hibernation foods. After waking from hibernation bears often use moose (Alces alces) calves as a protein source.
  • Sport hunting.— Sport hunting has not been a threat to large carnivore populations because hunters strongly prefer hunting ungulates. Nevertheless, bears have remaineda traditional, highly valued game animal, and some hunting areas specialize in providing bear hunting for hunters from abroad.
  • Poaching.— According to anecdotal material, bear meat was still a major protein source for several families in northeastern Estonia until about the 1970s. Currently, wild ungulates are preferred because they are more easily hunted, and bears are not targeted by most poachers. The illegal kill rate is not known, but it is believed that intentional poaching exists on a small scale. Therefore, it has been considered by managing authorities as an insignificant factor and not currently a threat to the bear population.
  • Loss of genetic variability.— Genetic variability is considered to be an important factor to maintain healthy animal populations. It is not known whether separate bear populations exist within Estonia. The level of gene flow should be studied in conjunction with other important population genetic parameters. It seems reasonable to assume that the Estonian bear population is not separated from Russian and Latvian populations, but the real situation remains to be elucidated.

Current status of the large carnivores in Estonia

The most complicated is situation with the brown bear population. Extensive forest clearance and human disturbance can become a major threat for bears in Estonia. If intensive forestry continues, especially logging of climax forest, bear habitats can become fragmented or even eliminated. Unfortunately, the response of bear population to intensive forest exvald ploitation has not been studied in Estonia. According to management authorities, the brown bear population is close to 600 individuals. However, this number is not based on any robust and reliable method. Local hunting organisations just send their numbers, based on the guesses of hunters, to Ministry of Environment.