We’re on the hunt for brown bear dens in Poland’s Carpathian mountains, on the border with Ukraine. The lairs lie within the gnarled caverns that naturally form at the base of decaying fir trees when they get to about 130 years old. Each den is slightly different – some have rocky bottoms, others have been lined with beech leaves, making a sort of woodland mattress. Looking inside gives an insight into the character of each bear, just like visiting a friend’s house.
We pass half a dozen caverns in a 15-hectare (37-acre) area on the steep, rocky woodland slope of Lutowiska forest district, just outside Bieszczady national park. There are an estimated 110 brown bears left in Poland and this slope is dense with dens and likely to be home to one mother and one or two cubs, with many others passing through.
The dens aren’t the only thing to note in this section of forest, which is named Lot 73. There are trees with fluorescent orange dots on them, meaning they have been marked for logging by the government’s foresters. A milestone court decision is temporarily protecting these trees on the grounds that the forest is home to bears, an EU protected species – but their future lies in the balance. The 10-year forest management plan for this district (2015-2024) is authorising eight times more wood to be removed than in the previous decade. It is a story that is being repeated elsewhere in the last remaining parts of Poland’s primeval mountain forests, only 2-4% of which is strictly protected.
In some respects we are on the edge of Europe, but the Carpathians are central for wildlife, stretching 1,500km (930 miles) from Austria round to Serbia, sheltering some of the continent’s last virgin forests. Many enchanting creatures live in the Polish part, such as the rare Ural owl and the three-toed woodpecker. There are rare lichens and beetles that thrive on dead and decaying wood, but most people know it as being home to large predators including brown bear, wolf, Eurasian lynx and wildcat. The local shops sell fridge magnets, beers and various preserves with pictures of wolves and bears on them – the odd hedgehog features too.
I am on a trip organised by Greenpeace Poland. We drive here from Kraków on a Sunday afternoon in October, passing all the holidaymakers heading the other way, back to urban life. It’s a hotspot for people who love the outdoors – particularly at this time of year.
Crisscrossing the forests are deep gullies created by state foresters, evidence of how a long history of logging is slicing up this vast old-growth forest. “People that come from the cities see something great, and think it looks good,” says our guide. “But for me, I’m seeing changes and it’s got really bad in the last few years. We’re losing key habitats at a fast tempo.”
My guide is a biologist who has worked in these woods for more than 20 years. He cannot be named because he has been threatened for speaking out against the logging. In Poland, protecting natural areas is becoming an increasingly dangerous thing to do. State foresters manage 23% of the land in Poland and have been heavily criticised for deforestation elsewhere in the Unesco-protected Białowieża forest, which is also primeval forest.
This forest is not just home to dens. Rotten logs are like breakfast bars for bears because they are full of grubs, but large chunks have been removed. Bears love scratching up against trees and you can see areas where the bark has been rubbed off high up on the trunk. This is also how they communicate with one another. At the moment, they are chatting a lot, as they are out, charging their batteries by eating as much as possible before winter hibernation.
Where bears see dens, humans see paths and plywood. Some of the tallest, straightest beech trees – each more than 100 years old – have an “S” on them, meaning sklejka, or “plywood”. A squiggly line on others is where the forest road will go. Logging happens all year round. But young bears, which weigh about 3kg each, will die if disturbed during the first three months of their life between December and March, the biologist says.
“This is a church for nature, not a drawing board for people to put marks on every tree. People have no respect for nature,” says the biologist. “It will look like a bomb has gone off once they’ve finished working in here.”
The foresters of Lutowiska district were told about the location of these bear dens in March 2020. But they still carried out logging in the area next door, Lot 72, home to a similar number of bear dens. The landscape looks so different, the biologist says he gets lost walking through it. The younger trees that grow back are not valuable to wildlife in the same way as their predecessors. All over these hills, the forests are getting younger.
From somewhere in the valley, trees can be heard being cut down. Lots 72 and 73 are both within a Natura 2000 site, meaning it should have the highest EU protection. The site is 70 metres from a national park. “Day by day, year by year, the national park becomes more of an island,” our guide says.
Hope for Lot 73 rests with the EU habitats directive, which says breeding habitats and resting places for brown bears must be protected because they are classified as a protected species. Crucially, theses areas are not just somewhere bears pass through, they are bear maternity wards. An organisation called the Natural Heritage Foundation notified authorities that the bear dens were in use – bear tracks were found and there were claw marks on trees. And for the first time, a regional court in Krosno has temporarily suspended felling based on the evidence.
This decision has no precedent in Polish judicial history, despite this EU law being in place since Poland joined the bloc 18 years ago. Campaigners say it could signal changes in the legal protection for wild animals threatened by human activity.
“Until now, this protection was fiction,” says Radosław Michalski, president of the Natural Heritage Foundation. “We have evidence that foresters in Lot 72 cut right next to the bear den. The photo documentation shows trees that have traces of bear claws and, at the same time, dots applied by foresters, proving that these trees were intended for logging.”
Rafał Osiecki, a forest inspector for Lutowiska forest district, says foresters are aware of bears in lots 72 and 73, but that there are traces of bears in practically all forests in the Bieszczady mountains, and that “forest management does not cause any negative impact on the whole bear population … Man has always managed these areas.” He denies that these forests are old-growth forests. “In the Bieszczady, one cannot speak of primeval forests – such forests do not exist here, apart from small fragments of the national park where there are small fragments of primeval forests.”
Osiecki says foresters make every effort to ensure protected species remain protected. He says the population of bears in Poland is increasing, which proves their habitat is good. He adds: “Nowhere in European law does it state that it is forbidden to carry out any forestry activities if bears are present in the area.”
Another part of this primeval forest is not being protected by the law, but by activists stationed outside the forest near the town of Arłamów, an hour north of Lutowiska.
Their camp has all the frugal markings of a hippy protest – a caravan, crates of apples, lots of mushroom soup, no wifi, no toilet and a cold stream instead of a shower. Mud gets everywhere and they play Dobble to pass the time. “It’s a new thing for the forest police and they don’t know what to do … They didn’t think we’d survive winter,” says Jòsefina Bendiuk, who is here with her partner, Dr Jakub Rok, an economist who divides his time between here and lecturing at the University of Warsaw. They are part of a protest group called Wild Carpathians Initiative (Inicjatywa Dzikie Karpaty).
The activists are stationed on a logging path into a forest that should have been turned into the planned Turnicki national park where bears and wolves are known to live. Only 3% of this land is protected, and so the rest is vulnerable to logging. Wild Carpathians Initiative has successfully protected 70 hectares from being chopped down since they started their occupation in April 2021.
A banner blocking the foresters’ gully into the woods reads: “Here the last natural forests are dying – help save them.” Attached to the banner is a platform about 10 metres high with a tiny tent on it, called a “sky bed”, which looks like it could be an extreme Airbnb experience. Whoever sleeps here is on night duty.
They can do this thanks to crowdfunding, grants, external backers, and by selling T-shirts and jumpers on the road. The camp has been attacked several times, usually by people who have drunk too much. On one occasion, an activist was attacked with a baseball bat. “The first days we couldn’t sleep we were so scared,” says Bendiuk.
They are here because nothing else has worked. “We tried many tactics – protests, temporary occupations, petitions – and they’ve all been futile, so we decided we needed permanent occupation,” says Rok. They monitor forests to look for violations of the law they can publicise.
Bieszczady is the only one of Poland’s 23 national parks located in the eastern Carpathians. It was established in 1973 and covers 29,000 hectares. Since the 1990s, the government has been talking about expanding it by 41,000 hectares, and creating a new area, Turnicki national park, of more than 17,500 hectares. Neither have happened.
“The Nature Conservation Act of 2004 gives local governments the right to veto the creation or expansion of a national park,” says Maciej Kałaska of the University of Warsaw’s faculty of geography and regional studies. “Even the smallest commune can say no and the park will not be built. Local authorities do not even have to justify their statement. The regulation introduced two decades ago effectively blocked all park-creating initiatives.”
Activists are joined by more than 200 scientists in demanding the national park plans go ahead, with a moratorium on logging in those areas until it happens. The Polish Academy of Sciences has also called for proper protections for primeval forests in an open letter to ministers. There are 320 protests against logging around Poland, according to campaign group Forests and Citizens.
Rok says the protesters will stay there until this paper park becomes a reality.
Meanwhile, brown bears all over the Carpathians are about to start their winter slumber, folding themselves into the base of old fir trees, hoping for some months of peace as the protests rage on.