Shoot a bear in Croatia, and you can skin it and turn the hide into a rug to adorn the floor of your living room. Or, if you wanted, you could hack off its head, stuff it, mount it, and hang it above your fireplace. Or you could butcher it, store the ursine bounty in your freezer, and eat well for a year.
Just north of the border, in neighboring Slovenia, hunting for brown bears (Ursos arctos) will land you in hot water. That's because hunting is explicitly prohibited under EU legislation, as brown bears are a protected species.
You'd think that bear life would be better in Slovenia than in Croatia. But you'd be wrong. That's because, according to new open-access research published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research, Croatians have better attitudes when it comes to bears than Slovenians do. Croatia recently joined the European Union. What would happen if they altered their bear management policy to fall in line with the EU's policy, as Slovenia has?
Under the current system in Croatia, 10 to 15 percent of the total bear population can be killed each year. Individual hunting organizations are each allocated a portion of that overall quota. Those organizations, in turn, sell permits for the trophy hunting of bears to hunters. Together, according to researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Zagreb, this has led to several benefits for the country. For one thing, the local economy benefits and hunting organizations can provide employment for locals. In addition, through the revenue generated by the sale of hunting permits, hunting organizations compensate farmers for any damage, most of which is to apiaries. Winnie the Pooh, after all, isn't the only honey-loving bear.
In Croatia, it is illegal to hunt females who are still caring for their cubs, and the method of hunting is tightly controlled. Each permit is good for only one bear, and hunters negotiate the price with the hunting managers. Thus hunting managers are able to generate higher revenue for larger bears.
In Slovenia, bears are protected. When bears damage crops or appear to endanger people or livestock, they're killed through a process of government-sanctioned culling. The Habitats Directive also requires the government, not hunting groups, to compensate farmers for bear-related damage.
Brown bears suffer from a culture of intolerance in Slovenia. Over the last five years, twenty percent of the bear population there was killed through governmental culls. That's compared to a more sustainable eight percent annual hunting reduction in Croatia. That's approximately eighty bears per year, while up to one hundred bears is actually allowed under the current laws.
By using actual kill data together with a mathematical model, the researchers led by Imperial College London Masters student Emma J. Knott determined that a population of just one thousand bears - the current population size estimate - would lose up to seventy percent of individuals over ten years. Given that the bear population is stable or increasing, they reason that the current population must be closer to 1400 individuals. If true, then despite the 10 to 15 percent allowance, Croatian hunters are only removing some five to six percent of the population each year.
According to Knott and her colleagues, that figure - combined with the economic gains offered by allowing hunting organizations to sell permits for trophy hunting - is more sustainable than the plan that Croatia would adopt if the current management structure is replaced with EU regulations. Shifting the responsibility for compensating farmers from the hunting organizations would also introduce a new financial pressure on the government. Knott points out that is it important to consider both wildlife biology and economics when making management decisions. "A policy in which wildlife pays for itself not only reduces perceived conflict between people and wildlife but can also result in a long-lasting, effective management scheme."
E.J. Milner-Gulland, a professor at Imperial College London who supervised the research, said in a prepared statement, "local hunting associations in Croatia currently have a positive relationship with the bears; the bear is accepted and valued by local communities. By contrast, many Slovenians have a negative attitude to bears, and we think this is because, unlike in Croatia, they see bears as nuisances rather than economically valuable and useful. If hunting was outlawed in Croatia, this would probably put a strain on the Croatians' relationships with bears and could result in increased conflict between people and bears."
This doesn't necessarily imply trophy hunting is a viable management strategy for all brown bears or other large carnivores. What this research does suggest is that wildlife management decisions ought to be made in accordance to the needs of each bear population, the attitudes of each human population, and the economic impacts of different policies. The survival of Croatia's brown bear population relies both upon "the ecological sustainability of the [hunting] quotas and the economic sustainability of the hunting organizations." Shifting away from trophy hunting could mean an uncertain future for Croatia's charismatic carnivores.
Knott E.J., Bunnefeld N., Huber D., Reljić S., Kereži V. & Milner-Gulland E.J. The potential impacts of changes in bear hunting policy for hunting organisations in Croatia, European Journal of Wildlife Research, DOI: 10.1007/s10344-013-0754-3
For more on how management decisions affect wildlife ecology:
Header image: Eurasian brown bear via Wikimedia Commons/Malene used under a Creative Commons license.