In Romania, Highway Boom Poses Looming Threat to Bears

Romania, one of Europe’s poorest nations, badly needs a modern highway system. But conservationists warn that unless the movements of wildlife are accommodated, a planned boom in road construction could threaten one of the continent’s last large brown bear populations.

One afternoon last month, biologist Csaba Domokos walked quietly uphill through a clearing in a Romanian forest, tailed by a crew of assistants. Domokos held a rifle loaded with a tranquilizing dart that could put a quarter-ton mammal to sleep. From behind a thicket several yards ahead came a guttural rumble so deep it seemed to shake the ground. The scientist moved forward until a cage came into view. Inside was a frightened brown bear, trapped since the night before.

Romanian bears
Romanian bear biologist Csaba Domokos (right) and colleague Levente Borka-Vitalis attach a satellite tag to a tranquilized brown bear. ALASTAIR BLAND

Domokos took aim and fired a fluorescent pink dart into the bear’s shoulder. The animal flew into a tantrum, raking the ground and attacking the cage. Soon, however, the bear grew drowsy and then fell fast asleep, its snout drooling through the bars. The team fitted the bear with a radio-tracking collar that would send location signals to Domokos’ computer for the next few years. Then five men dragged the bear into a clearing, where it soon woke up and staggered into the dense woods of the Carpathian Mountains, home to Europe’s largest population of brown bears outside of Russia.

Domokos, who works for the Milvus Group, an environmental research organization, is studying the Carpathian bears’ seasonal migration patterns — part of a project designed to assess the importance of this area as bear habitat and, perhaps, to protect it. His work has taken on a special urgency as the Romanian government is planning to build a freeway through this quiet valley in north-central Romania — a project that could have serious consequences for the bears.

Similar plans are advancing throughout Romania, following the country’s accession into the European Union and a renewed drive to modernize its economy and infrastructure — especially the underdeveloped transportation sector. This fall, the Romanian Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure released a master plan outlining a network of new roadways to be built over the next 15 years. The projects, which are intended to connect the remote Eastern European nation with the fast and efficient highway system crisscrossing the rest of Europe, will include 656 kilometers of new four-lane freeways and 2,226 kilometers of new four-lane “express roads,” costing an estimated total of $26 billion.

Conservationists fear the road-building boom will irreparably damage a remarkable wilderness.

While conceding that highway construction will bring benefits to a nation struggling to expand its economy, conservationists fear that the road-building boom will fragment and irreparably damage one of the most remarkable wilderness regions remaining in Europe and threaten its thriving populations of brown bears and other wildlife, including wolves and lynx. Historically, the Carpathian Mountains, which arc from Poland and Ukraine south and west through Romania, have been spared the sort of intensive development and human activity that have tamed most of Europe. Hunting in Romania was also strictly controlled during the Communist era.

As a result, the country still harbors a large number of brown bears. The government estimates a population of 6,000, but Domokos and other scientists say that the methods currently used to count bears are inaccurate. Whether the population is growing or shrinking remains a matter of dispute. What is beyond debate is that Romania’s bear population is thriving compared to the isolated bear populations of Europe. Only 15 or 20 brown bears are believed to live in southern France, 150 in Spain, and several dozen in central Italy. The British Isles and much of central and northern Europe are bear-free. Current estimates put another handful in the Alps. A dozen other nations from Norway to Greece together harbor about 6,000.

Conservationists warn that if the Romanian highway projects proceed without environmental safeguards, populations of bears and other animals will inevitably decline.

“For Romanian society, the highways should be built — it’s important,” said Mihai Pop, a scientist with the Association for Biological Diversity Conservation. “But these highways will split the mountain habitat into six or seven areas, and animals’ movements between them could be limited if we aren’t careful. We need scientific guidance to build bridges at the right places.”

What scientists are proposing is a series of “green bridges” across the new highways — 80-meter-wide overpasses covered with soil and vegetation and strategically placed to allow bears and other creatures to cross the streams of traffic. Biologists and planners also have discussed building tunnels, as well. But figuring out where to construct the wildlife bridges or tunnels will require better knowledge of the movement of bears in the Carpathians — hence the tracking research being carried out by Domokos and others.

‘Romania deserves the same infrastructure as Germany, Italy, England, and the U.S.A.,’ says one senator.

In Domokos’ study area, the four-lane expressway proposed to connect the Romanian city of Targu Mures to Iasi, east of the mountains, could disrupt important seasonal bear migrations and demolish multiple hibernation dens, currently situated in a quiet valley shrouded in woods.

“The bears use the western foothills to feed each summer and fall, and my fear is they won’t be able to get here anymore [if the freeway is built as planned],” Domokos said. “Also, the resident bears of the foothills might become isolated from the rest of the population.”

Romania has remained a haven for large carnivores — often the first animals to succumb to human encroachment — for a variety of reasons. For starters, the country has comparatively few roads, which fragment wildlife habitat. According to The World Bank, Romania has just 47 kilometers of roadway per 100 square kilometers, which is one-fourth the road density of France.

In addition, the nation’s notorious former Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, was famous for protecting bears from virtually all hunters’ guns — except his own. Estimates suggest that Ceausescu shot about 400 bears during his 25-year reign. But in that time the brown bear population ballooned and is believed to have peaked shortly before Ceausescu’s overthrow and execution in 1989.

Today, poaching kills an unknown, but possibly significant, number of bears each year, says Domokos. And while the brown bear is officially protected by the European Union, an exemption in the law allows member nations to hunt bears, if necessary, as a means of reducing property damage and the risk of human injury.

The need for roadway improvement in Romania was discussed prior to the nation’s entrance into the EU in 2007, but has intensified since then. Currently, the country relies on a loose network of two-lane thoroughfares and narrow mountain roads. Improvement plans have been stalled in the past by both turnovers in national leadership and intervention by officials demanding more detailed mitigation for environmental impacts. But now the projects appear to be moving forward in earnest.

Green bridges and tunnels might be the only hope for some Romanian bear populations.

The progress comes none too soon for Romanian Senator Barna Tanczos. He says building the country’s economy, which is still supported in places by horse and wagon, depends greatly on developing a modern highway system.

“Motorways are essential to link the country to Europe,” said Tanczos, who once worked with the transport ministry and currently is secretary of the Romanian Senate Commission on Agriculture. “You can’t keep the people in the 19th century. They deserve the same infrastructure as Germany, Italy, England, and the U.S.A.”

Some of the cost of the planned roads will be covered by the EU According to a spokesperson with the European Commission, the EU requires that possible negative impacts of construction projects on natural resources be evaluated and mitigated — in this case by wildlife crossing structures. Such wildlife byways above and under busy freeways and highways have proven effective worldwide. Bears, wolves, and elk routinely use the many green bridges and tunnels crossing the major highway that bisects Banff National Park, in Alberta, Canada. In northern Europe, wildlife crossings have been built for the benefit of badgers and other native species. California desert tortoises pass under highways via small tubular tunnels.

Domokos’ current tracking work in the eastern Carpathians is aimed at identifying the most routinely used bear travel routes, so that road planners can design green bridges accordingly. He says he may need several years more of studying his collared bears’ movements to determine the optimal locations for green bridges.

Green bridges and tunnels might be the only hope for some Romanian bear populations. In a small parcel of the western Carpathians called the Apuseni Mountains, about 250 brown bears could be especially vulnerable to the road-building plans. Already, intensified agriculture and development in the foothills to the north of the Apusenis have almost entirely isolated these bears from the Ukrainian Carpathians. A smaller freeway project now under construction along the southern flank of the Apuseni range could leave its bears genetically and geographically stranded. Currently, there remains only a 10-kilometer-wide corridor linking the Apuseni bears to the southern Carpathians, according to Radu Mot, technical director of an environmental non-profit called Zarand, which is studying the activity of bears in the region. He says losing the genetic exchange between these populations could eventually mean extinction for the isolated animals.

Mot’s organization has identified six critical crossings, called “pinch points,” along the projected course of the Apuseni freeway, and has helped draft detailed instructions for building respective crossing structures.

How well they will work is something scientists still don’t know for certain, and it will likely only be answered after hundreds of miles of new asphalt are laid across the Carpathians.

“You cannot have zero impact while building roads like these,” Mot said. “Whatever we do as humans has effects on wildlife. It’s my hope that if we can preserve some connectivity between habitat areas, we can prevent isolation — and prevent localized extinction.”