A bear-friendly community,
a love-hate relationship
Things to look out for when choosing a good restaurant
At dusk between August and September, bears may appear in the lanes of some Apennine villages in search of ripe apples, pears and plums.
The same thing happens in other places on the Planet, where brown and black bears live near populated areas. In the Park, the first case dates back to 1994. In the last 25 years, 8 bears have shown this behaviour, 7 females and 2 males, all aged between 2 and 5 years at their first appearance in a village or town. The phenomenon does not affect the whole population and varies greatly from year to year. Where and how does this behaviour originate? There are many and often overlapping reasons.
It is not uncommon for a Marsican bear to pass through a built-up area. Villages in the Apennines are surrounded by the mountains and forests where bears live, but also by the crops and orchards (some abandoned) the animals find attractive. In most cases, the bear simply crosses the village as it moves from one part of its territory to another, mostly using the peripheral parts of the populated areas and usually at night to avoid encountering anyone. At the end of the summer, bears commonly frequent the valley floors, full of orchards, brambles producing large quantities of blackberries and cornel, hawthorn and rose bushes, all producing berries the bears love to eat.
A typical landscape mosaic in the Apennines, characterised by cultivated fields, meadows, woods and shrublands, where, depending on the season, different wildlife species can feed on grass, insects, cultivated or wild fruits.
The first thing we learned from bears is their diversity and individuality. For example, the female F05 has always frequented a much smaller area than the other bears and to all intents and purposes has taken refuge in the most remote parts of the Park. She has reproduced twice, so apparently has everything she needs to survive. She has never approached a built-up area. The territory of the female FP01, on the other hand, is twice the size and by dint of passing through towns and villages, she has got into the habit of eating a few hens. She has also reproduced. The female F08, on the other hand, also several times a mother, has lived along the Sangro valley and although she has passed through populated areas several times, she has never lingered long in the village streets. Bears adapt to the territory they find and are able to exploit all the advantages it offers.
According to some studies, females with yearling cubs and juveniles frequent areas near villages to take refuge from aggressive adult males. This phenomenon occurs especially if the density of bears is high, as in the case of the Marsican brown bear. Bears are also easily conditioned by food (they are hungry by nature) and villages offer high-energy food sources (such as animal feed, beehives, poultry, livestock, vegetable gardens, etc.). In particular, unlike wild species, domestic apple and pear trees bear fruit almost every year and being the opportunists they are, bears know this and may be attracted to them.
Until May 2007, the fact that bears could be so conditioned by food was something I had only read about. I had learned from a study that bears used to receiving food from humans in the wild were able to learn the times when the food would arrive and be there ready and waiting. We had got into the habit of leaving 2 or 3 apples in front of the camera traps to convince the bear to stop and get better shots so we could recognise the earmarks of known bears. I generally checked the traps every seven days and more or less always at the same time. One morning on the seventh day, I remember walking away from the camera trap and returning to it after less than five minutes because I had forgotten my backpack. A young bear had just finished eating all the apples. We were both very surprised. And we’re only talking about three apples.
In 2020, the bear female F17, known as Amarena, became famous for having given birth to four cubs and having roamed the surroundings of the village of Villalago for several weeks, attracting many onlookers. Here the bear and its cubs are feasting on a cherry tree.
Given this scenario, if some bears are rewarded repeatedly when they pass through villages, they will learn how easy it is to access these resources (easily accessible and unprotected orchards and poultry houses) and will want to return again and again to obtain them when and however they want. If conditioning is also associated with a loss of mistrust of humans, some bears may start to frequent villages during daylight hours as well, despite the presence of people. If the bear is a female with young, it is likely the cubs will also learn this behaviour over time. This is how conflicts can arise.
When bears and humans get too close, we enter “thorny” territory for both the bears and the people.
A confident and conditioned bear can become involved in repeated and potentially “unpleasant” incidents with humans. For a bear, moving about in a built-up area is not the same as walking in a forest or mountain, in other words, a natural environment. The very structure of many Apennine villages with their narrow lanes can result in unexpected close encounters between people and bears, cornering the bear with no way out. Although habituated bears may be less likely to react aggressively during encounters with people as they are less fearful, it is much more likely they will be approached at risky distances. People may also engage in inappropriate and careless behaviour, either associated with fear, flight or aggressive reactions, or with excessive confidence, chasing or cornering the animals to photograph them or luring them with food, with the risk of being perceived as a threat by the bears and/or conditioning and habituating the bear even further.
On a social level, the presence of bears in built-up areas and the contexts described above are perceived by some sectors of the public as a loss of quality of life, not only in economic terms, but also in terms of security and tranquillity. Emotions such as fear and anxiety may produce contrasting effects, but they contribute to lowering the tolerance and acceptance of bears, making them unpopular. Aggression by a bear due to careless behaviour would negatively influence public opinion and such attitudes may result in general resistance to programmes to recover and conserve this species. This phenomenon can be dramatically exacerbated outside protected areas and especially in recent areas of expansion where people have not been used to living with bears for centuries.
A bear in search of fruit crosses a village in the ALMNP during the night. (© Marco Colombo – www.calosoma.it)
It was 21.30 on 20 August 2016. I was driving up the road to my home in one of the villages in the Park. Here I was confronted with a scene that was really absurd. Two people were taking a selfie under a lamppost. A few metres away from them a cornered bear was standing upright on a low wall. That was the object of the selfie. These are the situations that should be avoided at all costs. Years of conservation and peaceful coexistence could get burnt up for a few likes on social media
Habituated and conditioned bears can be approached and easily fall victim to poaching and road accidents. A study of black bears in Durango, Mexico, has shown that appearances are often deceptive when it comes to bears. Female bears feeding near a town produced larger litters than their wilder counterparts, leading to the general opinion that the population was increasing in numbers. However, bears were also being run over more frequently in populated areas. By comparing the number of births and deaths, the researchers found that the population was actually decreasing. Not only that, but the conflicts generated by the bears’ presence forced the management bodies to remove many bears from the wild. If we underestimate the risks of having a bear in the village, we may be faced with the “obligatory” choice of having to “remove” the bear for management purposes (in other words, placing it in captivity), something that has already happened in the Apennines in the past: a dramatic loss, if it is a female.
Living together implies the need to change our behaviour and adapt to others, and here we are talking not only about correcting the behaviour of bears, but also (and especially) about human behaviour.
Many of these situations could be prevented or controlled. How? As long as a bear receives a reward (food) within a town or village, it will continue to frequent it. To discourage such behaviour, all sources of food within built-up areas must be removed or made inaccessible. This is not easy, considering we are sometimes dealing with dozens and dozens of individual isolated trees. The adoption of preventive measures (for example, making orchards bear-proof) requires a significant investment of human and financial resources, especially involving local populations, but it is the only solution to significantly reduce occurrence of the phenomenon. Possible measures include the protection of food sources by bear-proof bins, electric fences and prefabricated bear-proof poultry houses; structural adaptation of poultry houses and fruit-picking campaigns (just before the fruit ripens) in unprotected orchards in populated areas. In parallel with preventive action, silvicultural and forest management measures are also promoted, with the aim of preserving the natural food, which in the Park has so far allowed bears to successfully reproduce every year and which keeps most bears in the wild state.
Some ‘ladies’ from Opi, a small town in Abruzzo, work together for the removal of fruit from trees in the village to prevent bears from being attracted. Once collected, the fruits are shared with the neighbors and used to make jams and pies.
It is, however, sometimes necessary for experienced authorised personnel to react to bears by making a noise and causing them pain by using non-lethal rubber bullets. Such measures are sometimes needed to keep bears away from towns and villages and thus avoid potentially critical and dangerous situations for bears and public safety. Such actions should also aim at “re-educating” the animal, making it associate populated areas and the presence of people with unpleasant situations (negative conditioning). Many studies, however, confirm that if bears are strongly motivated, they may “decide” that visiting inhabited areas and the associated deterrence is less risky than confronting dominant individuals or losing “easy” food. Intervening on the bears therefore has little effect unless we first address people’s behaviour.
During their activities to monitor the presence of bears in urban centres, ALMNP rangers use telemetry to monitor the movements of a collared animal.
Bears are hungry, not famished, so you can play in advance.
The phenomenon of bears in villages varies greatly over the years, depending on age, temperament and the availability of food in the wild. In years where there is an abundance of high-calorie nuts (acorns and beechnuts), the frequency of damage and presence of bears in populated areas generally decreases, but it may increase in subsequent years (the more they eat, the fatter they get and the greater their need to eat). Many villages manage this natural phenomenon through awareness-raising prevention campaigns. So if it is so difficult to make food sources inaccessible within populated areas and bears are so dependent on food, why not put additional food in the wild so that bears stay away from the villages? In some international contexts, both in Europe and North America, supplementary feeding (for example, feeding sites stocked with carcasses, nuts, etc.) is used as a management strategy to keep bears away from population centres and reduce damage and conflicts with human activities. Several authors agree that this practice can be effective in years when natural food is particularly scarce. But bears are never really famished in the wild (there are always alternatives) and once this practice is employed, there is no turning back. It becomes addictive, increases conflict and alters the way of life (some no longer hibernate). This practice also intensifies the risk of disease transmission from other bears and other species by concentrating more animals in the same area, increases infanticide by adult males against females with cubs and triggers competition or aggression by dominant bears.
L’ORSO IN PAESE:
UNA STORIA DI SAPORI E DISSAPORI
Attraversare un centro abitato, per spostarsi da una parte all’altra del suo territorio, non è così raro per un orso in Appennino. Tuttavia se, in questo frangente, un animale viene “premiato” con del cibo, esso vorrà tornarci. Se il condizionamento alimentare è associato ad una perdita di diffidenza nei confronti dell’uomo, ecco che alcuni orsi possono diventare dei vicini “ingombranti”. Modificando alcune abitudini e comportamenti è possibile garantire una vita tranquilla a noi e agli orsi e creare una comunità
It would probably be impossible to pick all the fruit in the villages and keep the bears away from the populated areas completely. Coexistence is not just about eliminating damage, it has to do with our ability to be tolerant and respectful, adapt to new situations and change our behaviour and attitudes.