Largest bear cull yet approved
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Spatial Planning has approved the culling of 230 brown bears for this year, the largest figure to date. The aim is to gradually reduce the country's brown bear population from an estimated 1,100 last spring to 800 so as to prevent major damage and keep people safe.
Last year the culling of 222 animals was approved, while 206 were actually culled. The culling plan is determined annually in cooperation with the Slovenia Forest Service and the Institute for Nature Conservation based on a study conducted by the Ljubljana Faculty of Biotechnology.
"We thoroughly considered other options to prevent conflict, but neither relocation nor keeping the animals in captivity are an option due to the large numbers," Minister Uroš Brežan told reporters in Ljubljana on 13 April.
The issue has been a source of persistent tensions between environmentalists on the one hand, and locals or farmers exposed to the bears, on the other. NGOs have delayed culling multiple times by challenging the ministry's decision in court.
The minister argued the population size of 800 "enables some form of manageable coexistence between bears and people". He also noted brown bear's prominent role in Slovenia's biodiversity and the need to protect the animal and its habitat.
According to Klemen Jerina, a professor at the Faculty of Biotechnology, Slovenia's brown bear population has been steadily increasing over the last 60 to 70 years. This brings many advantages, but also many problems. Brown bear is a species that interacts with humans in many ways, causing damage and, in extreme cases, can be life-threatening, he warned.
"Brown bears can even be dangerous to bears, younger bears are retreating from concentrated areas closer to settlements and these types of conflicts can in fact not be managed other than by regulating population density," Jerina added.
The culling has been tailored to target bears involved in human-bear conflicts as much as possible. The vast majority of the bears slated for culling will be younger bears, who typically have larger ranges and are more conflict-prone.
Ivan Kos, a professor at the Faculty of Biotechnology who heads the commission for wildlife management at the Hunting Association of Slovenia, told the STA that bears usually avoid humans rather than come into contact with them.
On average there are two bear encounters a year where the bear could harm a person, especially when the bear is protecting food or cubs.
A male bear that spots a mother bear with cubs will try to kill the cubs, which is why the mothers have an instinct to be aggressively protective. "Studies show that in such a situation the mother bear is not able to distinguish between a bear and a human," Kos said.
"Most of the bear's diet are plants, some bugs and only around one percent mammals, mainly carrion," he said. The bear often turns to orchards and beehives, Kos said, adding that a bear can smell a bee family several kilometres away.
The hunting association tracks the bear population by counting sightings in specific spots, recording data on culled bears and collecting faeces samples to identify individual bears. The total number of bears is then calculated using statistic models.
Hunters also feed bears to deter them from certain areas, using mostly corn and roadkill.