200,000 brown bears pick berries, eat ants, dig dens, rub rocks, upgrade apples, snore winters, style hair, fish fish and wander wildernesses in the northern continents of Earth. Of these, just 15,400 are found in Europe (excluding Russia)  and approximately 160-200 in Macedonia , 30+ of which inhabit Ohrid-Prespa.
200 might not sound like much, but the bears in Macedonia are an elite unit with a special role to play for the future of their species. Here are three reasons why:
- Bears in Macedonia display wide genetic diversity, which is more healthy for the ongoing future of the species, particularly in the West Balkans [3, 4].
- Balkan bears in general have relatively high reproduction rates compared with those in many other regions of the world [1, 2].
- Bears in Macedonia provide a link between stable populations in more northern areas of the Balkans and vulnerable populations in Greece . If the link is broken, the Greek bears will become isolated and potentially weaken due to inbreeding. Given their location on both sides of the Greek border, connecting populations together and securing genetic flow  is a key mission for the bears of Ohrid-Prespa especially.
And that’s just what bears in Macedonia mean to other bears. By dispersing the seeds of juicy fruits [5, 6], creating niche habitats when scratching on trees  and organizing ecosystems as apex predators , brown bears benefit plants, birds and insects too. For humans, when they’re not engineering apples to taste better  and being culturally iconic, they can also operate as expert ecotourism marketeers, bringing visitors to the regions they populate .
Luckily, in Macedonia, bears enjoy a positive image, even in areas where people co-exist with them closely, and most people support the principle of protection for them . Although poaching, transport accidents and snare incidents still occur, there is at least a general will to see them part of Macedonia’s future.
No doubt they will repay the country richly.
- McLellan, B.N., Proctor, M.F., Huber, D. & Michel, S. 2017. Ursus arctos (amended version of 2017 assessment). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Downloaded on 20 March 2018.)
- Stojanov A., Ivanov Gj., Melovski D., Hristovski S., Velevski M. (2010) Population Status of the Brown bear (Ursus arctos) in the Republic of Macedonia – Project : Development of the National Ecological Network in R. Macedonia (MAK-NEN) (Project report). MES, Skopje, Republic of Macedonia
- Karamanlidis, A. A., Stojanov, A., de Gabriel Hernando, M., Ivanov, G., Kocijan, I., Melovski, D., Skrbinšek, T., Zedrosser, A. (2014) Distribution and genetic status of brown bears in FYR Macedonia: implications for conservation, Acta Theriologica (2014) 59: 119.
- Society for the Protection of Prespa, Macedonian Ecological Society, Protection and Preservation of the Natural Environment Albania (PrespaNet), (2017) Transboundary Prespa – Review of Conservation Efforts: A report to the Prespa Ohrid Nature Trust, Agios Germanos, Greece.
- Nowak, J. & Crone E. E. (2012) It’s good to be eaten by a bear: effects of ingestion on seed germination, The American Midland Naturalist 167(1):205-209.
- Lalleroni, A., Quenette, P., Daufresne, T., Pellerin, M., Baltzinger, C. (2016) Exploring the potential of brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos) as a long-distance seed disperser: a pilot study in South-Western Europe, Mammalia, Volume 81, Issue 1, Pages 1–9.
- Zyśk-Gorczyńska, E., Jakubiec, Z., & Wuczyńskia, A. (2015) Brown bears (Ursus arctos) as ecological engineers: the prospective role of trees damaged by bears in forest ecosystems, Canadian Journal of Zoology 93(2): 133-141.
- Andrés Ordiz, A., Bischof, R., Swenson, J. E. (2013) Saving large carnivores, but losing the apex predator? Biological Conservation Volume 168, December 2013, Pages 128-133.
- Museum of Natural History (Oxford University), Tooty Fruity Evolution, Teacher Notes.
- Tattoni, C., Grilli, G. and Ciolli, M. (2017) Advertising value of the brown bear in the Italian Alps, Ursus 27(2):110-121.
Picture: Morning in a Pine Forest by Ivan Shishkin.