Why conserve bears

A challenge involving everyone


Directly or indirectly, man has caused bears to disappear throughout a large part of the Apennines.

Since the last century, bears have survived in a single, isolated population of a few dozen individuals confined to an area of less than 2000 km2. To avoid extinction, they need to increase in numbers and expand throughout the Apennines so they can better cope with climate and environmental changes and the genetic risks inherent in their limited numbers. How could bears increase? The likelihood of new bears migrating from other populations is almost non-existent, so bears in the Apennines can rely on nothing but their own reproductive capacity to survive… and this can barely counter current levels of mortality. But research confirms that any negative trend can be reversed by reducing mortality. One question, however, springs to mind: are bears really able to move about and survive in the rest of the Apennines?

The availability of suitable space is not a limiting factor in the Apennines and reports of bears have confirmed this in recent years.

In the central Apennines, a bear could move about in an area of more than 26,000 km2 from the Apennine ridge in the Umbria and Marche regions to the Matese massif on the border between Molise and Campania. But just like people, bears have their preferences and based on thousands of bear presence points collected between the years 2004 and 2014, providing an insight into their tastes, together with the latest statistical modelling techniques, only 20% of this area actually has suitable environmental characteristics to permanently accommodate bears, a total of 5,244 km2. In terms of size and environmental quality, this area is, however, sufficient to support a viable bear population (in other words a reproductively independent population sufficiently free from the risk of inbreeding depression in the short to medium term) of at least 200 bears.

Paolo Ciucci tells us pros and cons for the future of the bears in the Apennines.

Although there is still room for bears in the Apennines, some areas are too fragmented for females.

The Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park, the areas between the Simbruini and Ernici mountains, between the Duchessa and Sirente-Velino massifs and between the Sagittario gorge and Majella National Park, as far as the Gran Sasso and Reatino area, all represent genuine safe havens for bears, with a suitable configuration and size to accommodate females with cubs. They are the future epicentres from which new micro-populations could derive. Covering a non-continuous area of 3,190 km2, they could accommodate up to 70 females, more than half between the PNALM and the Ernici and Simbruini massifs. On the other hand, the Matese massif, north-western Majella, Sibillini mountains and (again in Umbria) large areas to the north west of the Nera valley (about 39% of the suitable areas) are too fragmented to allow permanent recolonisation by bears, reducing the potential for population expansion and growth.

Bears have a high risk of encountering a fatality wherever they go, regardless of suitability and level of protection.

For a bear, moving around in the Apennines is not without risk. More than 25% (6,481 km2) of the territory includes low-lying areas with sparse forest vegetation and road crossings, where bears have a high probability of being hit by vehicles, deliberately or accidentally shot and killed or poisoned. Some of these areas fall within food-rich zones, a real attraction for bears, but at the cost of their lives. In the PNALM and Sirente and Ernici mountains, more than half the territory is considered a risk for bear mortality, while in the Cicolano/Reatino area, this amounts to more than 70%. Despite the fact that most of the suitable areas (including the safe havens) are covered by some form of protection as they are located in protected areas or within the Natura 2000 network, bears still die there as well. Other areas are currently without any form of protection, including the Sabini and Reatini massifs, Cicolano area and Carseolani mountains. With such a high and widespread risk of mortality at the hand of man, it is clear that any conservation effort risks being thwarted.

An example of male dispersal, the map below shows the generalised, exploratory movements of three bears. In total, each bears travelled more than 200 km far from PNALM — a movement typical of young male grizzlies looking for mates, food sources, and areas to possibly establish residency.

The very limited expansion of the population’s distribution area observed in recent decades may be due to the bears’ difficulty in getting out.

Bears find it very difficult to leave the area where they are present stably (PNALM and neighbouring areas) towards the west (Ernici and Simbruini), south (Matese) and east (southern Majella). There are only a few safe corridors, in other words, areas where bears can live and reproduce during their slow expansion: just one in the Roveto valley in a north-west direction connecting the PNALM with the eastern edge of the Simbruini mountains, and a series of fragmented corridors connecting the north-eastern slopes of the PNALM with the Majella on one side (passing through the Mount Genzana Reserve) and with the Velino-Sirente massif on the other. Even when suitable, a number of the corridors contain numerous ecological traps, with the risk of thwarting the effective dispersal of young bears from the source population in the PNALM.

An example of the area used by bear F21 in 2019. The female is a “border” bear who spends most of her time either side of Highway 17, a road where a mother and her orphaned cub were run over and killed in the same year. In previous years, other bears were hit by vehicles, some survived.

The conditions are right for the bear to grow in numbers and expand, but not without a renewed effort to protect it.

How can we encourage the expansion of bears? By intensifying conservation efforts both inside and outside protected areas and giving priority to connecting areas and areas able to guarantee the stable presence of females. By planning measures to restore environmental suitability (forest management and silvicultural measures); measures to prevent, mitigate and control the risk of mortality (control of offences; improvement of road permeability; information campaigns); measures to regulate human activities (access and construction of infrastructure); and measures to prevent and reduce social and economic conflicts (prevention measures and awareness campaigns). Last but not least, preparation of the social and cultural context in potential bear expansion areas throughout the Apennines is critical, given that the human populations residing in expansion areas and peripheral parts of the range may not share the attitudes, behaviours and tolerance typical of populations that have always lived in contact with bears.

The bear is a point of contact between many different categories of stakeholder. Creating consensus over bears and change requires coordination and participation.

The conflicts behind bear conservation are multifaceted and involve historical, political, scientific, economic, cognitive, social and ethical aspects. This hyper-complexity is made even more evident by the urgent need to protect bears with a perhaps uncertain future. While on the one hand, bear conservation is jeopardised by the public’s attitude and resulting conflicts, on the other, politicians and administrators fail to manage this complexity efficiently. Part of these difficulties can be traced back to excessive bureaucracy, political and inter-jurisdictional fragmentation resulting in extremely slow administrative and decision-making processes, absent or ineffective implementation of management plans or existing legislation and reduced public involvement and commitment. In addition to direct impacts on human well-being or economic activities, many of the conflicts with bears can, in fact, be seen in the context of the symbolism associated with their presence (mistrust of institutions, need for political legitimacy, etc.). On the other hand, it is precisely from an understanding of this complexity that an opportunity can arise for the public in particular to play a leading and controlling role in the political and institutional processes associated with conservation of this animal. The bear belongs to everyone, it does not belong to any one body or institution, it sits at the same table as we do, and this table extends way beyond the walls of our own home.

Paolo Ciucci tells us about the role that an informed public can play in supporting the future of the bears and why it is important to protect these animals.

What is the PATOM?

An Action Plan for Protection of the Marsican Bear (PATOM: Piano d’Azione per la Tutela dell’Orso Marsicano) was drawn up in 2011 to protect bears in the Apennines. Its scope is to analyse the conservation status of the Marsican bear and identify the improvement measures to be implemented. Since 2016, to ensure implementation of the protection measures set out in the PATOM, the Ministry of Ecological Transition (formerly the Ministry of the Environment), Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise regional authorities, Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park, Majella National Park and Carabinieri Forestali have stipulated and signed a series of multi-year agreements.

For further information, you can see the agreements, the reports and minutes on https://www.minambiente.it/pagina/piano-dazione-la-tutela-dellorso-marsicano-patom; in addition, you can consult the page dedicated to PATOM on http://www.parcoabruzzo.it/pagina.php?id=461 and the administrative acts of the Regions. More information available on https://www.salviamolorso.it/per-un-nuovo-patom/

A community is built through dialogue. A new shared culture of communication can benefit both humans and bears in the long term.

Management decisions for the future of bears must, of course, be based on sound evidence, as the world of science teaches us. However the dangers bears face are so complex and unpredictable, they also require a high level of precaution, acting before it is too late, making choices that will in any case have a positive impact for bears (and perhaps require more sacrifices on our part). Because we are talking about an animal that could be at risk of extinction. But to allow everyone to make informed choices, we need to reformulate a “new culture of communication” involving universities and management and conservation bodies, with the aim of building trust and participation, by sharing the results of scientific research and management choices outside the academic world or institutional round tables. The opportunity to disseminate environmental (scientific and/or management and conservation) information to the general public is currently largely in the hands of the media and the growing number of social networks, with little control over information content. Ecological research and environmental issues are under-represented in the media. When they are present, they concentrate overwhelmingly on aspects that generate controversy and sensationalism and are therefore closer to the audience and human interests. It is only through direct involvement and the right information that people will feel motivated to change their behaviour.

Investing excessive emotion or keeping a distance both prevent you from making meaningful and aware choices.The future of bears depends on how we decide to live with them.

David Mattson tells us there is room for bears and humans to coexist and that it somehow depends on both.

Is it possible to think of a deeper, more intimate, and at the same time more rational vision of why bears should be protected? We can learn this from bears themselves. Studying this animal’s ecology shows us how all living things are interconnected. What happens to the bear, happens to us and what is good for the bear, is good for us. From this awareness can stem appreciation and respect for conservation of this animal and also for our management choices. First and foremost, we perhaps need to start from the idea that a model involving total separation between humans and animals is not feasible, especially in the context of Italy, where population density is high even within natural areas. Man does not set himself limits and boundaries (we have built towns and cities in the most productive valleys, brushing the animals aside), so how can we expect this of animals. A model of full coexistence is perhaps just as utopian, as it would not simply be about sharing the same space. It would rather be based on the concept of a relationship, in other words, stemming from the awareness that all living beings depend on each other. They are united by relationships and complement each other. An ideal vision, but perhaps extreme, even for the animals themselves. The secret of conservation probably lies somewhere in between. The solution perhaps lies in coexistence, in other words, sharing the same space, but without interfering with, or disturbing, each other. Giving each other room. In achieving this, it is certainly not the animals who can choose (they can only adapt). It is rather down to us to give them the just amount of space. But coexistence must not only be based on tolerance. Above all, it means recognising that, come what may, humans and animals are part of the same ecosystem and that these relationships really do exist. It is from this recognition that respect is born. In this context, finding solutions or mitigating conflicts is simply one aspect of living together. But a culture of coexistence is born and grows from teamwork, in other words, from the fusion of the actions of individuals and thus from a feeling of community. As an anonymous person said: “Always be kind. Every person you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about – a thought that needs to be applied to bears as well as humans.”

Bear conservation requires humility and a willingness to answer a few simple questions: what are we willing to give up to live with bears? Is it so impossible to adapt and change, to modify your life to accommodate the other?

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