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Project diary 2006
Announcements in the media during December that most bears are already hibernating were premature. During fieldwork in Nízke Tatry National Park on 16-19th and 26-27th December we found tracks of five different bears in the area from Vyšná Boca to Demänovská Valley. Bears of all age classes were active, including females with cubs, subadults and large males. The locations where we tracked the bears ranged in altitude from 800 to 1,600m above sea level.
Bears in the Tatra Mountains region usually begin to hibernate sometime from the end of November to the end of December. The situation in particular years depends on weather conditions but also on food availability: for example, if there is a good crop of berries or nuts. Pregnant females and females with cubs are usually among the first to enter their dens. They also remain in their dens longest, being among the last to emerge in spring.
If temperatures fall and there is more snow, most bears will probably begin to hibernate. However, if temperatures remain high it is possible that many of them will not hibernate, mainly those living in more southerly or lower-lying areas. In this case, they might still live mostly from their fat reserves, but if they are active they will use up more energy than if they were sleeping. On the other hand, if the warm weather continues, spring may come early. The opposite could, however, also happen: winter weather could come late and bears may hibernate later. This remains to be seen.
During monitoring we did not record any signs of heightened agitation or aggression in the bears, although certain situations always carry an element of risk and so the same preventive measures apply as during other seasons.
April-MayAt the present time it is very probable that all bears are active. We tracked a female with two cubs in Poľana at an altitude of about 800m a.s.l. It is common that bears move down to lower elevations, where snow melts earlier and they can find herbs and grass, which form part of their natural diet. The smell of food can also attract them near to human settlement. This is mainly when people are careles and leave refuse freely accessible. This is the situation we found near flats in Demänovská Valley, where special bear bins have been installed but despite our warnings local people still leave compost outide the refuse bins. During our most recent visit we found a large plastic bag of refuse at a distance of about 100m from the flats that had been dragged away by a bear.
Some bears in the Tatras have already emerged from their dens. According to zoologist Robin Rigg of the Slovak Wildlife Society (SWS) - visitors to mountain areas need not panic. "Some people traditionally scare the public at the end of winter with the announcement that hungry and aggressive bears are wandering the forests, but it is not quite like that," says Rigg. "Bears do not eat while in their dens and lose 15-40% of their autumn weight, but after winter their metabolism is still slow. And besides this, so far there has not been any case in Slovakia of a bear attacking a person as prey."
Rigg is chairman of SWS and for the third year he is leader of The BEARS Project - "Bear Education, Awareness and Research in Slovakia". Within the project he monitors bear-human conflicts. "In Slovakia there are usually up to 10 people injured by bears per year. The results of scientific research clearly show that it happens mainly when people surprise bears in sudden close encounters and bears attack in self-defence," explains Rigg. "In 2004 and 2005 people were injured by bears in spring, but it happened in March-April, when a bear (or female with cubs) was startled and attacked because it felt threatened."
If we know here bears occur and are careful in such places, it is often possible to avoid problems. According to Rigg, hunters in central Slovakia should be careful when visiting feeding sites, for example, not only in the mountains but also in river basins. Collectors of deer antlers should also be careful, especially in the morning and evening, in dense forest vegetation and near food sources. "If we meet a bear despite these precautions, we can still help ourselves if we know what to do", claims Rigg, who has already had several encounters with bears. For example, it is not recommended to shout or run from a startled bear because this could provoke an attack. It is better to stand still and, if the bear does not approach, to try to increase the distance between you and the bear by slowly backing away.
It is a different case when a bear develops the habit of feeding on refuse, loses its wariness of people and becomes aggressive. According to Rigg, these dangerous situations can also be avoided with the help of special containers or electric fences, as the Poles are already doing it in the Tatras.
Rigg confirmed that Tatran bears were awake on 28.2. "In the morning I was at Podbanské, below Kriváň, and I found fresh tracks at a height of 900 m a.s.l. The bear, which from the tracks could have been about 80-100 kilos, had probably passed by ahead of me during the night or the early morning. Perhaps he woke up when it got warmer last week and stayed out despite the return of freezing weather," added the zoologist. Females with cubs, often considered the most dangerous, usually stay the longest in their dens, but they can also emerge during March.
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