The National Council on Biological Diversity at the Ministry of Environment and Water approved the inclusion of the Rila – Buffer Protected Area in the Natura 2000 ecological network. This happens after 11 years of delay and following a decision of the European Court of Justice. Thus, the last territory of the Important Bird Areas in Bulgaria, which was outside Natura 2000, will receive legal protection.
This area includes forests and pastures of Rila Prefecture, adjacent to the Rila National Park and the Rila Monastery Nature Park, which as of 1 January 2007 should have been included in the ecological network. The inclusion of this territory in Natura 2000 is extremely important for the protection of endangered bird species living in forests. It preserves the largest compact habitats of the Eurasian pygmy owl and the boreal owl, as well as a significant part of the populations of the white-backed woodpecker and the Eurasian three-toed woodpecker- species with limited distribution only in the high mountains. Other particularly important species are hazel grouse, western capercaillie, meadow corncrake, golden eagle, short-toed snake eagle, peregrine falcon.
The decision to include Rila-Buffer is a demonstration of our country’s readiness to fulfill its obligations under Article 4 of the Birds Directive. By the date of accession to the EU, Bulgaria had to declare sufficient number of protected areas for birds to ensure that special measures were taken to protect endangered and migratory species. Only scientific ornithological criteria should be used for the selection of sites, and economic considerations can not be taken into account. Since 1997, the European Court has accepted BirdLife International’s criteria as the most appropriate.
OIP has been declared a Corine site of international importance in the 1990s, and in 2005 was approved by BirdLife International as a site of international importance for a large number of endangered breeding bird species. In 2006 the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB) submitted duly completed documentation for 114 proposed protected areas for birds, including OIP Rila. At that time, however, the National Council on Biological Diversity (NCBD) did not approve the whole territory of the RMI, based on clear economic arguments. Since then the unfortunate history of the overall protection of the IBA Rila continues despite the fact that in 2007 BAS confirmed the need for the whole territory to be included in Natura 2000 and although in 2010 a wide range of ornithologists from different institutions united around the proposal that the whole OIP went into Natura, with the territories outside of the two parks uniting in one zone – Rila-buffer. The decision on Rila-Buffer was postponed to three meetings of the NCBD, the last of which in 2016. Then the decision was postponed under pressure from the municipalities despite the latest warning issued by the European Commission (EC) to Bulgaria. This caused Bulgaria to be sued and in the spring of 2018 it was convicted by the European Court for failing to comply with its obligations under the Birds Directive.
At the meeting of the NCBD, the protected area around Rila for the natural habitats was also considered. According to the decisions of a series of biogeographical seminars (bipartite process between the state and the EC) the announcement of the zone is necessary for the conservation of brown bear habitats and the critically endangered species of the fish European bullhead. Three variants of the area – the Association for Research Practices, the National Museum of Natural History at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forests.
The proposal, which best meets the scientific criteria, is that of the National Museum of Natural History at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. It was also supported by representatives of the scientific community and by both representatives of nature conservation organizations. The area proposed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forests, under the name “Low Rila”, is twice as small, fragmented and does not provide the conservation objectives. Nevertheless, the members of the board and representatives of the administration prevailed and the cut-off option was approved. This is a violation of the requirements of the Directive, as it is necessary to take into account only the scientific criteria at the notification stage.
It is important that the process of proclaiming the Rila-Buffer and Low Rila Protected Areas is completed as required by law and that the actions of the government, local authorities and citizens are aimed at the effective conservation and management of the protected areas of Nature 2000, stimulating nature-friendly activities and avoiding the destruction of habitats and species anxiety.