May 17, 2006

Bears Thrive in Arctic on New Iron Curtain Route

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

PASVIK VALLEY, Norway -- Bears are thriving in Arctic forests between Norway and Russia at the northern tip of a planned European "Green Belt" along the route of the former Iron Curtain.

The brown bears are apparently benefiting from the end of the Cold War when they were used as targets by bored or jittery Soviet guards on the desolate icy frontier between NATO member Norway and the Soviet Union.

"The bear population seems to be increasing," said Martin Smith, an American bear researcher who works at the Svanhovd Environmental Center in the remote pine and birch forests of the Pasvik Valley which divides Norway and Russia.

"I get the impression that it was pretty much a free-for-all for (Soviet) guards to shoot bears," before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he said.

Experts had for years estimated there were at least 20 bears on the Norwegian side of the 196-km (122-mile) border with Russia. A 2.5-meter (8-ft) wire fence still marks the frontier, but there are fewer guards.

Smith said genetic analysis of 33 samples of hair and feces in 2004 and 26 samples tested in 2005 showed at least 50 different bears roaming the region. One of the biggest males was estimated at 350 pounds (158.8 kg).

Pasvik Valley is at the northern end of a planned Green Belt which will stretch from the Artic to the Adriatic and Black Sea along the former "no go" strip of land that marked the Cold War divide in Europe. The belt will be made up of farms, parks, and eco-tourism projects.

In some regions, the ribbon of land often became a sanctuary for rare plants, insects and small animals simply because it was off limits to all but soldiers.

The bears had a harder time on the remote northern frontier, where most border violations were by reindeer, Artic foxes and bears. Even now, there are other factors that make the tip of Norway a rather inauspicious starting point for the Green Belt being backed by environmentalists.


Pollution from a giant nickel factory on the Russian side of the Pasvik Valley has blighted large parts of the landscape, stunting pine trees and turning some areas in Russia into a lunar-like wasteland.

"The sulphuric acid burns the soil," said Paul Aspholm, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Agricultural and Environmental Research at Svanhovd.

"The emissions from nickel are the same as having 5-10 trucks loaded with dust driving around every day," he said. Most of the pollution blows to the north, across Russia into the Barents Sea.

"Look at this pine tree," he says, showing that the needles only covered the ends of the branches. "On a healthy tree, they would extend further back."

Since 2004, the World Conservation Union, which represents 81 governments as well as conservation groups, has been promoting the ribbon of land along the former Iron Curtain as a nature zone.

"We intend to improve cooperation along the borders and to link protected areas with unprotected areas where communities have traditional farming and other activities," said Alois Lang, an Austrian who is coordinator of the Green Belt project.

So far, Germany has come furthest with projects ranging from cycle paths through forests to eco-tourism on farms. One scheme is to map a band stretching 25 km (15.5 miles) on each side of the border as a basis for regional cooperation.

"We will try to help sustainable land use in agriculture, direct marketing of farm products, eco-tourism," Lang said.

Back in the forests of northern Norway, Smith is hoping to learn more about the bears from the ex-Soviet border archives, which could be a goldmine if the guards noted tracks on a band of sand laid on the Soviet side of the fence to record footprints of would-be human defectors.

"There were motion sensors along the fence and a patrol was sent out to check when they went off ... but we don't know if they wrote it down if it was just a bear," he said.

Smith says bears often squeezed through the wire fence at the border.

"Bears are amazing. If a bear can get its head through a hole it can get through. I once had a 300-pound bear that got through a 12 inch by 12 inch feeding port."