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Brown Bears in the Alps: The Great Bear Comeback

The brown bear is returning to the mountains of Central Europe, thanks to resettlement projects in Italy, Austria and France. Biologists celebrate the animals’ return as a success in endangered species protection. But the general population has mixed feelings about welcoming back the predator.

By Philip Bethge

It was Christina Kröll’s dog which showed the first signs of agitation. Only minutes later did she herself catch a glimpse of the massive creature that had frightened her pet.

Kröll, the wife of a butcher from the town of Nauders near Italy’s Resia Pass, says that she saw the bear standing on a forest path less than 30 meters (about 100 feet) away as she walked her collie early one summer evening. The bear followed the 53-year-old woman and her pet for about 15 minutes, until Kröll reached the vehicle that she believes saved her. “I was afraid — to the point of panic,” says Kröll. “The only thing between me and the bear was the glass windshield in my car.”

Kröll spotted the brown bear in August, and news of the encounter quickly spread throughout the town. But Nauders, it turns out, was merely a stop-over for this shaggy troublemaker. The young bear Kröll saw on the forest path, since named “Lumpaz,” has been making his way through a region bounded by three countries, Austria, Italy and Switzerland, for the past three months, and an excited local population has been following his every move.

In late July, the animal became the first bear to step onto Swiss soil in a hundred years when he strolled into the Münstertal, greeted by dozens of curious bystanders. A few of the tourists were even foolish enough to move within a few meters of this large predator. The Zürich tabloid Blick ran a cover story entitled “Yes, the bear is back!” But, on a more cautionary note, the paper asked “Just how dangerous is our brown bear?”

Friend or foe?

The story of Lumpaz is symbolic of the dilemma facing Central Europe’s biggest predator. The animal, which can weigh up to 300 kilograms (662 pounds), causes equal measures of euphoria and horror the minute it is spotted — not surprising given that in these areas human beings were the ones to drive it out in the first place.

Outside of Russia, there are still about 14,000 bears in Europe, mostly in Romania and the Balkans. But “ursus arctos arctos,” the European brown bear, is making a comeback elsewhere in Central Europe too, aided by resettlement projects in Austria, Italy and France. In particular, the creature is making his way back into the forests of some of the continent’s hot spots for mountain tourism – such as Austria’s Northern Limestone Alps, Italy’s Dolomites and the Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain.

While biologists see the brown bear’s return as a success story, it has also revived the age-old conflict between man and beast. What happens when the first hiker is killed by a bear? How will shepherds, beekeepers and hunters react to the bears? And why should today’s Europeans make room for a predator that, only a hundred years ago, frequently met a horrible death in steel traps?

Bear experts from all over the world recently came together at the 16th International Bear Conference on Italy’s Lake Garda to discuss these issues. (Meanwhile, an Austrian research center has just completed a long study on European brown bears sexual habits.) Appropriately clad in multifunctional trousers and outdoor shirts, the delegates, sipping Bardolino and snacking on Pizza Romano, discussed such topics as the infanticide common among male bears and the use of barbed wire to obtain hair samples. But the issue at the top of everyone’s agenda was the “human dimension.” “Some people see bears as sexy and charismatic,” says Alistair Bath of the Large Carnivore Initiative of Europe, “but for others they are evil, blood-thirsty predators.” For Bath, the central issue is this: “Just how much of the wild are people willing to accept?”

Just knowing that this powerful animal has been sighted somewhere in the area can turn a mountain hike into a completely different out-of-doors experience. The Italian nature park Adamello Brenta is less than 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) north of Lake Garda. From the Dolomite village Madonna di Campiglio, a funicular takes you up to the Grosté Pass, at an altitude of 2,450 meters (8,038 feet), from where you hike down into the Tovel Valley — to a spot surrounded by the jagged walls of the Brenta Massif. “We released the animals down there,” says Claudio Groff, pointing into the valley. “And now they walk across this pass at night.”

Groff is the bear expert for Trento’s regional government. Since 1999, the Italian has been leading a team with only one goal: to resettle the brown bear in the Italian Alps. In 1950, there were still about 70 of the creatures living in Trentino. By the 1990s, that number had dwindled to three older males. “That meant, of course, that offspring were out of the question,” says Groff. The scientists decided to address the problem with resettlement. They released “Masun” and “Kirka” in 1999, “Daniza,” “Jose” and “Irma” a year later and, finally, “Gasper,” “Brenta,” “Maya,” “Jurka” and “Vida.”

The ten animals were lured into baited traps in Slovenia, which has a thriving bear population, and were then trucked to the Adamello Brenta Park. The bear museum in nearby Spormaggiore documented their arrival on video. Like drunken sailors on shore leave, the brown bears stagger from their shipping crate into their new environment. After briefly scenting the weather, they head into the underbrush. “The resettlement has been a great success,” says Groff. “At least twelve cubs have been born already.”

The excitement of the wild

Hiking through bear territory is an incredible feeling. It’s a five-hour walk from the Grosté Pass down to shimmering Lago di Tovel. Pulses quicken as the forest becomes more dense closer to the lake. After all, a bear could emerge from the underbrush at any time. What then? “Don’t run away,” as experts advise? And if attacked, “lie on the ground, stomach-down” and “play dead?”

“Fear is a completely normal reaction,” says Groff, “the bear is bigger, faster and stronger than we are.” But human beings are not part of this predator’s normal fare. “There hasn’t been a single known death in Italy, Spain or Austria in the last 100 years,” Groff adds. Besides, the animal’s diet is 75% vegetarian. But is that enough to calm jittery nerves?

Trentino Alto Adige is in the heart of ancient bear country. “Orso bruno,” the brown bear, appears 49 times in the local place names. But reference to the bear is far from flattery, and indeed was once the expression of a bitter enmity. Historically documented bounties for the bear and faded photos of celebrated teams of hunters, the bear’s skin at their feet, are witness to the South Tyroleans’ proud victory over this powerful animal. And now, once again, the furry animals are managing to reignite old grudges.

According to the Trento provincial government, there have been more than 250 reported incidents of bears attacking livestock, raiding beehives or scaring humans since 1999. “The problems were especially serious this year, when a few bears went into towns,” says Groff. “Jurka,” a female, has particularly worried scientists. She has developed a taste for chickens and tasty garbage, both available mainly near towns and villages. “Many people want us to get rid of this animal,” says Groff, “but Jurka is one of the few females who produces cubs regularly. Within the space of only one year, she’s already been seen with two new cubs.”

A 21-member bear management team is on hand to prevent the conflict from escalating. Employees of Italy’s forest police shoot at overly aggressive bears with rubber bullets to “frighten” them. The provincial government pays for mobile electric fences to protect sheep herds in their Alpine meadows at night. Shepherds and beekeepers already receive financial reimbursement. The Italians have paid almost €160,000 in compensation since 1999.

“Resettling bears is very expensive and has been causing problems for decades,” says Piero Genovesi of the Italian wildlife conservation organization, Istituto Nazionale per la Fauna Selvatica. According to Genovesi, a population is only considered stable once it reaches about 50 animals. For this reason, Genovesi fears, the Trentino bears would have to be managed intensively for up to 80 years, and even then success is not a guarantee. The delicate balance between bears and humans could swing back at any time.

Take Austria, for example. For the past 15 years, Austrian biologists have been trying to bring back the brown bear. But they remain “miles away” from a “stable situation,” reports Georg Rauer of the Austrian World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Rauer was there when, 16 years ago, the Austrian bear saga began on a hopeful note when scientists brought in a female bear, “Mira.” Two years later, she gave birth to two cubs, fathered by the legendary “Ötscher bear,” which had entered Austria from Slovenia back in the summer of 1972. Two more bears were soon resettled in Austria, and the project seemed to be heading in the right direction. Just five years ago, the Austrians were able to proudly count a brown bear population of 25 to 30 animals.

An attorney for bears

But their elation has since been tempered. “We haven’t seen any signs of young animals in two years,” says Rauer, who has devoted his efforts to bears since 1995. Indeed, the bearded biologist terms himself a “bear attorney,” an arbitrator of sorts between human and beast. Whenever a bear causes trouble, Rauer quickly arrives at the scene to assess the damage. “The animals here have become especially fond of rapeseed oil, which is used in chain saws and large machinery.” Rauer recently dealt with a case involving a steam roller that a bear had dismantled to reach the oil in the hydraulic system — the most costly damage he has ever seen, says the biologist.

According to Rauer, bears cause less than €7,000 in damage each year in Austria. He has never had any reports of direct conflicts between bears and humans. But the Austrian bear population is shrinking again, suggesting that public sentiment is once again beginning to turn against this funny, reclusive creature.

“27 animals have been born here since 1991,” says Rauer. However, current genetic analyses of hair samples show that there are only about ten animals living in the state of Lower Austria and five to six in Carinthia (Kärnten) today. The situation speaks for itself, as far as Rauer is concerned: “The remaining bears were most likely shot illegally.”

So it seems that biologists’ dreams of a peaceful coexistence between predators and humans are constantly being thwarted by both our primal fear of the beast and the stupid pride of a new breed of bear hunters. There isn’t much room for the brown bear in Western Europe to begin with. At the Lake Garda conference, Spanish researchers Carlos Nores and Juan Herrero reported that the population of Cantabrian bears has declined to 100. Nowadays, only about 50 bears travel along the mountain passes in Italy’s Abruzzi region. And despite resettlement programs, the population in the Pyrenees is also suffering. Last November, the death of female Pyrenees bear “Cannelle” (the French for cinnamon) stirred the emotions of the French. The animal, accompanied by her cub, came into a hunter’s crossfire in the village of Urdos.

To protect her cub, Cannelle attacked the hunter’s dog, and the hunter shot the bear. The incident prompted hundreds of bear supporters to stage protests, both in the Pyrenees and at the Panthéon in Paris. Even French President Jacques Chirac called it “a tremendous loss for biological diversity.”

“One could do all kinds of exciting research and still end up with a pile of dead bears,” researcher Bath soberly concludes. Nevertheless, he is convinced that the brown bear deserves a permanent home in the mountains of Central Europe. According to opinion polls, a solid 75 percent majority favors the animals’ return. “Especially the local people are often intensely proud of the fact that specimens of this great carnivore still live in their region,” says Bath.

Locals should grin and bear it

In the case of the troublemaker making his rounds at Resia Pass, biologists can only hope that local residents will continue to tolerate the animal’s escapades with patience. Young bear Lumpaz, since identified as an offspring of Dolomite female Jurka, is doing exactly what researchers want him to do: He is migrating, bringing the biologists closer to their goal of making the brown bear indigenous to the entire Alps region.

At the same time, however, the animal’s youthful curiosity makes him what Rauer calls a “problem bear.” On the one hand, the region’s tourist industry appreciates Lumpaz as “free advertising,” and vacationers in Switzerland’s Münster Valley are already getting a taste of the latest local specialties, “bear pizza” and “bear beer.” But officials are also concerned about the safety of visitors.

To deter bear tourists, they keep the animal’s exact whereabouts a secret. Lumpaz, they believe, has become too comfortable with humans, and Christine Kröll isn’t the only one who has been frightened by the bear. The animal came within five meters of a tourist, also near Nauders, and a hunter near Ramosch “practically had a heart attack” when he looked up to see the bear standing in front of him.

“The bear is a large, defensive animal, and the consequences can be serious if it feels threatened,” warns Rauer. He insists that Lumpaz has not been aggressive yet, but that the real problem is that he spends too much time near villages. “We should quickly cure him of his trusting nature.” But now the bear’s education will have to wait until next year, since Lumpaz has migrated south to spend the winter in South Tyrol, where he will soon curl up in a cave. When that happens, things will quiet down for a while for the bear and his champions. Lumpaz, like most bears, will be hibernating until next March.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

–> read original story at SPIEGEL Online International

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