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10 Jan 18

Bear Claims Sink Their Claws Into Macedonia’s Budget

 

Over the last five years, courts in Macedonia have ordered the state to pay out millions of euros for damages caused by bears, relying often on the flimsiest evidence.

Sase Dimovski BIRN Skopje

Over the last five years Macedonian courts have issued about 700 verdicts obliging the state to pay over 3 million euros for damages allegedly caused by roaming bears.

Macedonian bears have run up these expenses by eating bees, honey, cherries, cows, sheep, and destroying agricultural products.

Because these rare and endangered animals are under the vigilant protection of the state and may not be hunted, the state is responsible for any damage that bears do to private households or businesses.

A BIRN investigation shows that over these five years, from 2013 to 2017, bear-related lawsuits filed by citizens “ate” more than 3 million euros from the budget, an amount that rises every year.

In southwestern region around the town of Bitola alone, nearly 500 such lawsuits were filed over the five years.

Bitola also holds the record when it comes to the damages sought from the state budget.

The total cost of the damages, including all the costs of the procedures, exceeds 1.6 million euros if the state, in ideal conditions, pays out on time and voluntarily, without calculated interest and costs for forced execution.

In the nearby region of Prilep, back in 2013, there was only one final court verdict on damage caused by a bear, but in 2015 and 2016 the number of such lawsuits rose to 21 and 22 respectively.

Only two explanations are possible for this phenomenon: either the bears have multiplied in Macedonia, and have found easier ways to feed themselves, or people have spotted a good opportunity for profit by suing bears.

This latter explanation is indicated by data that show that, in many regions, the same people appear as plaintiffs in different years or even several times in a same year.

The State Attorney's Office has represented the Republic of Macedonia before the courts in these legal proceedings, but in some cases lawsuits were raised directly against the Ministry of Agriculture. In at least two cases, compensation was paid out from the account of this ministry.

Complaints about bears rarely rejected


According to the State Attorney's Office in Bitola, which covers the Basic Courts in Bitola and Resen and the territory of Demir Hisar, 493 lawsuits were filed in the last five years, as a result of which, by the end of October, more than 867,000 euros was paid out in compensation for bear-related damage. The costs of the procedures increase that sum to about 1.3 million euros.

The final compensation total may rise again be 1.6 million euros, however, because many cases are before the Appeal Court in Bitola, increasing the potential court costs incurred in second-instance procedures by around 250 euros per case.

Data from the State Attorney’s Office in Prilep show that in 2017 just one case ended with a final verdict, which awarded compensation of 423 euros, which has already been paid from the budget.

However, another 20 cases are waiting to be settled, in which the total demands for compensation are 19,770 euros, without court costs, which are another 15,000 euros or so.

It seems that lawsuits against bears turned into a lucrative business, which staff from the Ministry of Agriculture, who sit on the Commission for the Assessment of Damages, admit.

11,000 euros paid for destroyed beehives

The Appeal Court in Bitola confirmed the verdict for compensation of 11,000 euros, plus court costs of an additional 1,318 euros, for damage done by a bear to a beehive.

Experts estimated that 49 bee families, 49 hives and 492 kg honey in a honeycomb had been destroyed, which translated into lost production of honey of 974 kg per season, and lost production of 17 bee swarms.

The court found that while the fences around the beehives prevented the entry of domestic animals and cattle, they could not prevent the entry of a bear.

"No regulation states how a beehive should be fenced, nor does the defendant refer to such a regulation or applicable standards in the Republic of Macedonia, so that it can be accepted that the plaintiff has not acted in the prescribed manner,” the court stated.

“They called the Regional Office of the Ministry of Agriculture with a claim that a bear had eaten a cow. When we arrived on the spot, there was an animal skeleton, but nobody was sure whether the animal had been attacked by a bear, a wolf, or dogs, or had just died,” a member of the local Commission from the Ministry of Agriculture recalled.

“The Commission compiled a record of the killed animal, and later with an expert, who made an report based on our records and the claim of the owner, they received a verdict that the damage was done by the bear.”

The commission assessing damages done by bears contains three members, one of whom is always an inspector for forestry and hunting, while the other two are employed in the local unit of the agriculture ministry.

A member of the commission, who asked to remain anonymous explained a typical situation in the western town of Debar.

“When I joined the Commission for damages done by game [wild animals’, I faced a series of threats, because until then, according to the locals, the minutes were compiled in the offices of the ministry, where the citizens came to report,” he recalled.

“When I demanded to go and see the damage, many of them give up [the claim], which shows they were making false claims,” he added.

“There were also examples of destroyed crops of potatoes, corn or pepper on ten square meters, where they wanted to record that the whole field was destroyed, convincing me that the bear would come again to eat the rest…

“On this, we told them that if a bear did come, they should report that, so if we could make a record of each damage done, every day.”

The BIRN investigation showed that, in most such cases, the courts accept claims for damages done by bears, and that such verdicts were confirmed by the appeal courts in Bitola and in Gostivar.

None of the verdicts came under review at the Supreme Court to ascertain the position of the highest court on this issue.

The state, through the Ombudsman, usually disputed the claims of the people who said a bear had eaten their bees, cherries or livestock. But the courts usually rejected those arguments.

In one case, in the town of Ohrid, the court accepted that a bear had eaten cherries simply because of the broken branches on the tree. It ordered the lost income from cherries for the next six years to be paid as damages to the owner.

Less than 400 bears do a lot of damage:

 


Updates to the register of the number of bears in Macedonia are carried out once every 10 years.

According to the last update, from 2010, which remains valid until 2020, there are between 371 and 381 bears in Macedonia, not counting cubs under the age of two.

The bear population is tracked by the Institute for Forest Management, as part of the Makedonski Sumi [Macedonian Forests] public enterprise, and there is a map of hunting grounds in Macedonia, which states how many bears live in each hunting zone.

The number is largest in the national parks, where there is less chance of poaching.

By contrast, data show that the western region around the town of Debar is notorious for poaching bears, some of whom have died after being caught in traps.

Several bears have also been recorded as killed by vehicles on the roads in western Macedonia.