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Plenty of habi­tat for brown bears in Europe

pub­lished 30 July 2018 | mod­i­fied 30 July 2018

Great oppor­tu­nity for Euro­pean brown bears: a new study shows that there are still many areas in Europe, a vast 380,000 km2, where bears are extinct but with suit­able habi­tat for host­ing the species. An effec­tive man­age­ment of the species, includ­ing a reduc­tion of direct pres­sures by humans (like hunt­ing), has the poten­tial to help these ani­mals return in many of these areas, accord­ing to the head of the study. It is now impor­tant to plan the recov­ery of the species while tak­ing mea­sures to pre­vent conflicts.

brown bears - Polish Carpathian mountain rangeFemale bear with her two cubs roam­ing in search for bil­ber­ries in Sep­tem­ber, Tatra moun­tains, Pol­ish Carpathi­ans.
Image credit: Adam Wajrak

Some 500 years ago, there were brown bears almost every­where in Europe. How­ever, in the fol­low­ing cen­turies they were wiped out in many places, includ­ing Ger­many. The rea­sons for the decline of bears were pri­mar­ily habi­tat loss and hunt­ing. Today, around 17,000 ani­mals still live in Europe, dis­trib­uted over 10 pop­u­la­tions and 22 coun­tries. Some of these pop­u­la­tions are at risk due to their rel­a­tively small size.

Excel­lent oppor­tu­nity for species con­ser­va­tion
In recent years, the hunt­ing of brown bears has been banned or restricted in Europe. In the future, bears could recolonise parts of Europe. A new study, pub­lished on 9 July in the jour­nal Diver­sity and Dis­tri­b­u­tions, led by the Ger­man Cen­tre for Inte­gra­tive Bio­di­ver­sity Research (iDiv) and Mar­tin Luther Uni­ver­sity Halle-​Wittenberg reveals: there are still many areas in Europe where there are cur­rently no bears, but which would, in prin­ci­ple, be suit­able as habi­tat. Of an esti­mated amount of more than one mil­lion km2 of suit­able bear habi­tat in Europe, about 37% is not pop­u­lated; equiv­a­lent to an area of about 380,000 km2. In Ger­many, there is 16,000 km2 of poten­tial bear habi­tat. How­ever, the prob­a­bil­ity of future recoloni­sa­tion varies widely. For exam­ple in Ger­many, poten­tial bear habi­tats out­side the Alps are geo­graph­i­cally iso­lated and unlikely for the bear to return naturally.

The fact that there is still suit­able habi­tat for brown bears is a great oppor­tu­nity for species conservation.

Dr Nés­tor Fer­nán­dez, head of the study, Ger­man Cen­tre for Inte­gra­tive Bio­di­ver­sity Research (iDiv) and Mar­tin Luther Uni­ver­sity Halle-​Wittenberg.

Sci­en­tists are already see­ing around 70% of Europe’s pop­u­la­tions recover, and it is likely that bears will return to some of the cur­rently unoc­cu­pied areas. “In Ger­many, too, it is very likely that some areas will, sooner or later, be colonised by brown bears, espe­cially in the Alpine region,” says Fer­nán­dez. So, there is rea­son to hope that bears will be native to Ger­many once more, 200 years after their extermination.

The brown bear
The brown bear (Ursus arc­tos) is one of the largest ter­res­trial mam­mals in the world. Brown bears liv­ing in north­ern Europe weigh about 200 kg, south­ern Euro­pean ani­mals only about half that. Brown bears are omni­vores, but feed mainly on plant foods. They eat, for exam­ple, fruits, beech­nuts, grasses, insects and car­rion as well as smaller mam­mals such as voles. They rarely prey on larger ani­mals. Brown bears hiber­nate and are usu­ally soli­tary, but cubs can stay with their moth­ers for about two years. Brown bears were orig­i­nally dis­trib­uted through­out Eura­sia, North Amer­ica and North Africa. Of the ten pop­u­la­tions which still exist in Europe today, four are made up of more than 1,000 indi­vid­u­als, while three com­prise fewer than 60; among these is the pop­u­la­tion in the Alps. The largest Euro­pean pop­u­la­tion, with more than 7,000 ani­mals, is in the Carpathi­ans. Despite the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the small pop­u­la­tions and their his­toric decline in all habi­tats due to habi­tat loss and hunt­ing, the brown bear as a species has been assessed in 2016 and clas­si­fied as Least Con­cern by the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species™.

Europe-​wide map
For their study, Scharf and Fer­nán­dez have col­lated the results of all rel­e­vant pre­vi­ous bear habi­tat stud­ies. Each of those focused on a delim­ited area in which bears live, and, for this area, analysed which require­ments the ani­mals have for their habi­tat. By bring­ing together the results of these local stud­ies, the sci­en­tists were able to cre­ate a com­puter model that would iden­tify fur­ther poten­tial bear habi­tat across Europe. The pre­dic­tions made by this model are more reli­able than if the data from one region were merely applied to the whole of Europe.

brown bear habitat map europeThe map of Europe shows areas cur­rently inhab­ited by brown bears (blue), areas that are suit­able habi­tat for bears accord­ing to the new study, but which are cur­rently not pop­u­lated (green) and areas unsuit­able as bear habi­tat (grey). Note that sev­eral poten­tial bear habi­tats are geo­graph­i­cally iso­lated and unlikely to become nat­u­rally recolonised.
Image credit: Anne K. Scharf and Nés­tor Fernández

Pre-​emptive action impor­tant
For many peo­ple this would prob­a­bly be good news. “In recent years, the atti­tude of Euro­peans towards wildlife has changed a lot. Today, many peo­ple feel pos­i­tive about the return of large mam­mals,” says Fer­nán­dez. Nev­er­the­less, the fact that bear come­back can lead to con­flicts with some human activ­i­ties needs to be con­sid­ered at an early stage. Such con­flicts mostly arise when bears eat crops or dam­age bee­hives, and they also occa­sion­ally attack sheep. Direct attacks by bears on humans are, how­ever, extremely rare, bears them­selves gen­er­ally steer clear of people.

The map devel­oped by Fer­nán­dez and his col­league Anne Scharf (Max Planck Insti­tute for Ornithol­ogy) makes it pos­si­ble to pre­dict the areas into which bears could return. These maps can help pol­i­cy­mak­ers iden­tify poten­tial areas of con­flict early and counter these with specif­i­cally tar­geted mea­sures. For exam­ple, com­pen­sa­tion pay­ments should be cou­pled with pre­ven­tive mea­sures being taken in advance, explains Fer­nán­dez. Such pre­ven­tive mea­sures can be, inter alia, the con­struc­tion of phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers such as clo­sures for api­aries, elec­tric fences, or the use of guard dogs to pro­tect fields and graz­ing pas­tures, and increas­ing pub­lic aware­ness. A look at the map also makes it clear; bears do not stick to national bor­ders. “That’s why a com­mon man­age­ment pol­icy for the brown bear and other wild ani­mals at the Euro­pean level would be desir­able,” says Fer­nán­dez. At present, poli­cies between mem­ber states regard­ing the pro­tec­tion and man­age­ment of bears is very het­ero­ge­neous, and there is dis­par­ity in how com­pen­sa­tion schemes are struc­tured in dif­fer­ent states.

(Source: Ger­man Cen­tre for Inte­gra­tive Bio­di­ver­sity Research media release, 24.07.2018)

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