If Europeans go down to the woods today they might be in for a big surprise: bears. And in nations no longer accustomed to big predators, it is no picnic.
Reintroduced in parts of western Europe in “rewilding” programs — in the east they never died out — brown bears have wandered far and wide and created antagonism with their attacks on livestock. However, unlike wolves, which have also returned and have killed farm animals, bears have also been involved in isolated incidents with humans, including one in August when a man was injured in Italy.
High on the hills above Nals in Italy’s Alpine northern region of South Tyrol, for example, after losing four sheep to bear attacks this year, farmer’s wife Monika Windegger is worried.
“I am no fan of bears, that is for sure,” she said as her husband showed reporters some photographs of sheep that had been mauled. “I am scared for my kids. Going for a walk now is not as safe as it used to be.”
Male bears weigh as much as 350kg and females 200kg. Both can easily outrun a human. Rearing up, they stand up to 2m tall.
They are omnivores, eating berries and nuts as well as small and large animals — including sheep and calves. They are capable of consuming 40kg of food a day in the weeks before hibernation.
“The bear is a wonderful animal, but here in this populated area, [its repopulation] cannot work,” said hunter Hans Gassebner, 72, whose buzzing bee hives are surrounded by electric fencing after a sweet-toothed bear wrecked them.
“People used to come hiking here, but now you hardly see anybody because they are afraid,” he added.
Brown bears used to be widespread throughout northern and central Europe, Asia, the mountains of north Africa and western North America as far south as Mexico. However, after losing territory to human expansion and being hunted for their fur, they now cover just 2 percent of their former habitat, numbering about 200,000. Half are in Russia, 30,000 in North America and 8,000 in Europe.
In northern Italy, 10 bears from the southeastern European nation of Slovenia were released in 1999. The population has since soared to between 40 and 60 animals, some of whom have made it to Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Several have been killed.
Other projects saw Slovenian bears transplanted to the Pyrenees mountain range that straddles the Spanish-French border, where the population is estimated now at about 25. One of the most famous migrant bears — Balou — who was sponsored by the French actors Fanny Ardant and Gerard Depardieu, was found dead earlier this year.
According to South Tyrolean official Andreas Agreiter, who monitors the animals and compensates farmers up to 300 euros (US$375) per dead sheep, the public used to support the bears.
“A few years ago, two-thirds were in favor, but now, with all the negative press coverage, two-thirds are against,” he told AFP in his Bolzano office.
Proponents say that as a “keystone species,” big predators are important players in ecosystems, having hugely beneficial and sometimes surprising trickle-down effects.
In a famous example in the Yellowstone National Park in the US, the reintroduction of wolves in the 1990s led deer and their other prey to more frequently avoid open areas. This in turn allowed vegetation that the deer would otherwise eat to thrive, providing not just cover and food for other animals but even, by firming up the soil, slowing erosion by waterways.
In the case of bears, the WWF said, they play an important role keeping other animal populations in check and also in “seed dispersal” from their droppings. For Agreiter, media outlets and politicians — both of whom have tended to exaggerate the problems — need to put things in perspective. And public information needs to improve.
“In the past 10 years, we have had 11 cases of a bear ‘approaching.’ However, that does not signify an attack; it could just mean a few steps,” he said.”Statistically, it is more likely that a hiker will fall off a cliff, get hit by a car or be attacked by a dog off the leash.”
Moreover, in eastern and southeastern Europe, where big predators never died out — there are between 400 and 500 bears in Slovenia alone — there is little controversy.
Many there see them as an asset.
In Bulgaria and Romania, tourists can go bear-and-wolf-spotting. In the central Croatian region of Lika, 85 percent of people are in favor of bears, one survey showed.
“Bears are among the most difficult of European animals to bring back and I do sympathize and recognize the problems,” said British environmentalist George Monbiot, a leading proponent of “rewilding.”
“However, bears are extraordinary and wonderful beasts who are an essential component of the living system... It would be a great tragedy, I think, if we cannot find ways of living with them,” Monbiot said.
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