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Active protection of lowland populations of capercaillie

Active protection of lowland populations of Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) in the Bory Dolnośląskie Forest and Augustowska Primeval Forest

Project objectives:
The project encompasses comprehensive measures for active protection of lowland populations of Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) in Bory Dolnośląskie Forest and Augustowska Primeval Forest. In the Bory Dolnośląskie Forest where only few individuals lived in 2008, a pilot program of restitution of this species was initiated in 2009 by releasing 76 individuals from various Polish breeding centres. In the Augustowska Primeval Forest the annual rate of population decline over the most recent 15 years amounted to more than 7%, and the 2011 population number was down to 16 cocks which means that the total number in population fell to ca. 30-40 individuals. The population decline in both areas suppresses genetic variation because of genetic drift and increasing isolation of display grounds and particular individual Capercaillie. In Poland, Capercaillie is a protected species. I is also entered into the Polish Red Book of Animals as ‘critically endangered’ species (CR category), and into the Annex I of the Birds Directive and therefore considered when special areas for bird protection are established under the Natura 2000 network. It is a qualifying species for the Augustowska Primeval Forest PLB200002, and for the Bory Dolnośląskie Forest  PLB020005.

A detailed analysis of causes for the decline of Capercaillie in the studied areas has been performed, and the measures planned aim at either elimination or alleviation of the identified threats. The following issues have been considered the most important (1) critically low population number,  adverse genetic status, isolation of both populations of Capercaillie – in the Bory Dolnośląskie Forest and the Augustowska Primeval Forest; (2) alteration of living habitat of the species (3) excessive impact of predators, and (4) intensifying anthropogenic impact. All planned activities comply with the provision of the National Plan for the Protection of Capercaillie and the recommendations of the IUCN Re-introduction Group. The overarching objective of the project is to restore vestigial lowland populations of capercaillie in the areas of the Bory Dolnośląskie and the Augustowska Primeval Forest by implementing the following measures:

1.The restoration of Capercaillie populations and preservation of their genetic pools in the Bory Dolnośląskie Forest and the Augustowska Primeval Forest.
In order to restore the Capercaillie population numbers in both areas where the project will be implemented, releasing of total number of 220-285 birds obtained from Polish breeding farms  will be conducted. The preferred way of raising these birds will be the ‘born to be free’ method. In accordance with the principles of this method, the chicks are living in natural conditions since their earliest days of life, find food on their own, are free to move about, in co-operation with their mothers they also learn to avoid predators and to display normal social behaviour. When the young are fully fledged and can fly, they are transferred with their mother into the area of planned release, with adult female staying with them till the time of natural dispersion of young birds. Prior to release, the birds will undergo comprehensive veterinary examination, and material for genetic studies will be collected from each individual. The adaptation of released birds will be carried out in special adaptation areas where the Capercaillies will be protected from predators (adaptation aviaries, electric fence), and their food will be supplemented by natural items. Also planned is translocation of 60-80 wild birds from Belarus. The individuals of  Tetrao urogallus major subspecies, the offspring from other Polish lowland populations, and from the Belarusian population will be used in the releases. A Capercaillie breeding farm will be established within the area of the Augustowska Primeval Forest.

2.Monitoring capercaillie populations.
The activities planned in the project include telemetric monitoring of ca. 40-50% of Capercaillies released, using VHF and GPS transmitters of ‘back-pack’ type with activity and mortality sensors. The telemetric equipment to be used will have mechanism ensuring that after the power-cell are exhausted, the fastening disintegrates freeing the bird from transmitter. The data obtained from telemetric measurements will allow the determination of (1) the survival rates of the released Capercaillies, and possible reasons of their death; (2) living ranges and habitats preferences of Capercaillies and the seasonal changes in these parameters; (3) the ranges and extents   of possible migrations. This will enable to evaluate the effectiveness of the program and correct orientation of protection measures related to the quality of biotopes. The telemetric measurements will also provide data on survival rates and reproductive success of birds bred by different methods and those translocated, and – as a consequence – to evaluate their suitability in the species restitution programs. Feather samples will be collected from all birds released in order to establish their individual genetic profiles. The genetic analysis will be also completed for all Capercaillie feathers found in the study area in order to determine the population numbers of wild-living birds, and whether the birds released had entered reproduction. The monitoring of Capercaillie populations will also be performed by twice repeated cenzuses on courting trees and during displays, and by analysing information from observations charts. 

3.Reducing and monitoring the population numbers of mammalian predators.
The projects envisages the reduction of population numbers of predatory mammals (foxes, racoon-dogs, martens, badgers, American minks, and racoons) by shooting and capturing in live-traps. The inventories of burrows and checks of the numbers of occupied burrows will also be performed as well as hunts with the use of hunting dogs.  All this will result in reaching the target level of population density of predators at ca. 2 individuals/1000 hectares, recommended for the areas where restitution of small game  animals and forest gallinaceous birds is conducted.

4.Improving and monitoring the living habitat of Capercaillies.
The following measures are planned in the project: (1) improving water regime via the construction of small-scale retention projects i.e. gates and small ponds; (2) removing excessive tree undergrowth and forest bottom vegetation in order to restore optimum structure of habitat; (3) improving available food supply and shelter for Capercaillies through mowing of tall, low-production billbery patches; (4) marking fences around timber plantations and removing old fencing in order to limit the mortality among birds colliding with them in flight; (5) covering selected sections of forest roads made of dangerous sharp aggregates by gravel (proper source of gastrolithes) in order to reduce mortality of birds caused by wounds in their digestive tracts; (6) removing neophytic plants and planting bog whortleberry in order to restore natural structure and species composition of the habitat. Monitoring of habitat quality, and socio-economic impact of this project is planned.

5.Reducing anthropogenic impact.
Under this task, gate-type barriers will be installed on forest roads near active display grounds and places where birds are released. Near the barriers, there will be notices displayed, banning entry into the areas of the projects, while on forest roads – the boards demanding particular attention and reduction of speed in order to limit the disturbance to birds and to eliminate their accidental collisions with motor vehicles . Because in the Bory Dolnośląskie, the cycling tourism is the most pursued type of recreation during the season most critical for Capercaillie population (April-September), provisions are made to construct hiking/cycling path with full infrastructure, in order to channel tourist traffic away from Capercaillie sanctuaries.

6.Environmental education and promotion of the project.
For the purpose of raising the level of environmental awareness and developing social acceptance for the protection measures in the program, the following activities are envisaged: (1)  seminars marking the inauguration of the project, (2) series of training sessions for various age groups of local residents which should win their support for protection measures, (3) issuing information/promotion-related tables and publications on the biology and ecology of Capercaillie as well as on the project, (4) producing a 20-minute documentary about the species and the project, (5) disseminating the outcomes of the project via presentations at national and international conferences, and (6) creating and maintaining a project website. The project will conclude with an international conference on the protection and restitution of Capercaillie population, with view of its demonstrative character, also by publishing a compendium summing up all results and experience gathered during the implementation of the project.


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