Did the Soviet Union collapse harm wildlife?

When a country goes into economic freefall, the resulting chaos can trigger a host of environmental changes. Wildlife regulation often falls by the wayside, and poaching rises — but activities such as logging may drop. “Thus, socioeconomic shocks may hinder or help conservation,” researchers write in Conservation Biology.

In the case of the 1991 Soviet Union collapse, which was it? The team studied population trends for 8 mammal species in Russia, including deer, bears, lynxes, and grey wolves. For data, they turned to the Russian Federal Agency of Game Mammal Monitoring’s records. That database contains annual tallies for mammal species, obtained by methods such as counting tracks in the winter and surveying hunters. The researchers studied data from 1981 to 2010, covering the decade before the collapse and the two following decades.

Moose, brown bear, and wild boar population growth rates dropped significantly in 1992-2000, the team reports. For instance, the number of wild boar fell by half from 1991 to 1995. Poaching and weak wildlife protection likely contributed; many people also abandoned their farms, leaving fewer crops for the animals to raid. Meanwhile, grey wolves flourished, probably because population control measures dropped off.

In the last decade of the study, all the mammal species except Eurasian lynx and wild reindeer were on the rise. By that time, forests had begun to grow back on abandoned farmland and may have provided new habitat for some animals.

None of the mammal species were endangered, but their populations were still thrown out of whack by the economic meltdown. “[E]ven abundant species may need careful monitoring during times of turmoil,” the authors warn. “Times of socioeconomic shocks can be critical periods for wildlife and may warrant special attention by conservationists.” Roberta Kwok | 22 January 2015

Source: Bragina, E.V. et al. 2015. Rapid declines of large mammal populations after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Conservation Biology doi: 10.1111/cobi.12450.

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