Young bears from Estonia caused quite a stir in Vijciems, Latvia on Wednesday. A Novaator reader wrote to ask why there are no bears in Latvia and whether there are other species in Estonia who cannot secure a foothold in Estonia's southern neighbor. University of Tartu associate professor of zoology Harri Valdmann answers.
Latvia has not had any bears since the late 1920s. Like in Lithuania, Latvian hunters managed to completely kill off the local population. "There are jokes that even Latvia's national epic is titled 'The Bear-Slayer.'" However, looking back in history, it comes down to the natural range of bears. Estonia only has a single bear habitat – Ida-Viru County, which is also the only part of bear country that stretches into the Baltics. It covers the Leningrad Oblast and Karelia in Russia," Valdmann said.
Therefore, the fate of bears in Estonia depends in part on what happens on the other side of the border. "These habitats pulse. When the population is strong, it spills over to less suitable areas. There are a lot of bears now, and they reach as far as Latvia, which is not the case if numbers are low. It's that simple," the associate professor said.
At worst, there were only a few dozen bears in Ida-Viru County. Even though it is difficult to accurately gauge the number of bears in the wild, the recent count suggests there might be around a thousand bears in Estonia. The population is greater than it has been in the last 100-150 years.
"It is a coincidence the range currently coincides with Estonian borders. We are talking about a gradient that stretches slightly into Latvia. There are more bears in Ida-Viru and Lääne-Viru counties, Jõgeva and Järva counties and even Harju County to some extent. There have never been many bears in Southern Estonia," Valdmann added.
While Latvia has suitable bear habitats, there are not enough bears in Estonia for the range to extend into Latvia. "There is no physical reason why the bears in Latvia couldn't keep heading south. And if the Latvians don't shoot them, they might even stay there," the zoologist offered.
It is also possible the bears will return to Estonia should the area not be to their liking. Wolf packs also cross borders freely.
Valdmann said it is still unclear what constitutes the most favorable habitat for bears. Russian experts have suggested that bears prefer forests stretching over more than 10,000 hectares. "At the same time, we know there aren't any such forests in Estonia. A bear we tagged spent the entire summer living in an apple orchard of just a few hectares. Therefore, I believe that as long as bears have food, the existence of vast and untouched forests is not that crucial."
The effects of felling aren't clear either. "On the one hand, clearings yield ants that makes up the lion's share of a bear's diet in summer. The population of ants peaks a few years after trees are cut down. That said, vast forests make for a peaceful place to live, which is also something bears value," Valdmann reasons. Virgin forests are also home to the red wood ant.
The zoologist said that the optimal biological abundance of bears might not coincide with the wishes and preferences of people. "The current population seems to be testing people's patience. Damage is considerable, contacts have become frequent and bears are starting to be hit by cars. The latter is seen as unacceptable," Valdmann said. That is why it seems doubtful Latvia will get a bear population of its own in the near future.
Valdmann said that there are no other species the range of which corresponds so neatly with national borders. The moose has a similar taiga habitat. "This needs to be seen in broader context. Moose numbers dwindle if we start going south and west, with few in Latvia and virtually none at all in Lithuania. They mostly inhabit taiga forests that only exist – or rather existed – in Ida-Viru County in Estonia," the zoologist added.
Another species to be mentioned is the flying squirrel. The number one question regarding the latter is whether forests the squirrels inhabit are cut down or not.
Editor: Marcus Turovski