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Conservation of bears in Europe

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists the brown bear in Europe as a species of ‘Least Concern’, as this classification includes European Russia, which still has a large bear population, but within the European Union it is listed as ‘Near Threatened’, as a number of populations are small and fragmented, and are likely to decline or become locally extinct without conservation action.

The brown bear is included in Appendix II of The Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (the Berne Convention) as a strictly protected species. However, amongst the countries that have signed the Convention, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine and Turkey have made reservations excluding bears from this protection to allow for management of populations.

Hunter with bear - Photo SWS

Bears are also listed in Annexe II (species of community interest whose conservation requires the designation of special areas), except for populations in Finland and Sweden, and Annexe IV (species in need of strict protection) Council Directive 92/43 EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and wild flora and fauna (the Habitats Directive).

An Action Plan for the conservation of brown bears in Europe, adopted by the Berne Convention, requires pan-European management of bears; together with the formulation of management plans for each country with bear populations.

Hunting of bears is still permitted in a number of countries. Public attitudes to brown bears in Europe are generally negative, but less so than with the wolf.

Depredation on livestock and damage to agriculture

Bears will depredate livestock, including sheep, goats, cattle and horses, and also cause damage to crops, including maize and grain, fruit orchards and beehives.

Livestock guarding dogs and electric fencing can be effective in preventing bear attacks on livestock (see Protecting livestock against predators for more information). Other solutions include electric fencing and walls around orchards, and placing beehives on raised platforms.

Habituated bears and attacks on people

Problems with bears occur when they become habituated to human food sources, such as hotel or village refuse dumps or campsites. A bear will quickly learn to return to easily obtainable food sources, and will overcome its natural wariness of people, breaking into tents or cabins. Education about how to avoid habituating bears, through the use of specially designed bear-proof refuse bins, and by keeping clean, odourless camp-sites, is a key factor in reducing conflicts.

The European brown bear is generally less aggressive than the North American grizzly bear, but it can still be dangerous to humans, and every year berry pickers and mushroom collectors are injured in confrontations with bears, and deaths have been reported from Romania, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia and Finland. Attacks are not thought to be predatory, but are usually related to defence of cubs or a carcass. In North America, leaflets and safety videos are widely available in National Parks and recreational areas where bears are present, giving advice on how reduce the risk of being attacked and how to behave in the event of meeting a bear.

Illegal killing

Illegal poaching is an important cause of bear mortality, with poaching increasing in Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, FYR Macedonia and the Yugoslav Federation, as well as in the reindeer herding areas of Finland and Sweden. International trade in bear body parts used for medicinal purposes also contributes to poaching. In southern Europe, female bears are still killed and the cubs taken to train as ‘dancing bears’, and in Russia bears are poached to meet the demand for bear parts in Asia.

Campaigns by groups such as WSPA’s ‘Libearty’ appeal have done much to highlight the plight of dancing bears and have managed to end the practice in Greece and Turkey, and international conventions such as CITES strive to eliminate trade in bear body parts. Education about bears and the true level of depredation on livestock and damage to crops, as well as preventive measures and payment of compensation, can reduce the motivation for illegal killing.

Loss of habitat

Bears are very sensitive to habitat loss and disturbance; they need reliable seasonal food sources in order to accumulate enough fat to survive hibernation, and if disturbed, they will leave an area containing rich foraging, and may consequently starve during the winter. They also need large undisturbed areas, away from roads and human activity, in which to den for the winter. Increasing recreational use of bear habitat, and habitat loss and fragmentation of remaining habitat through road and housing development, tourism and forestry activities are therefore a major threat to bear populations. Forestry and agricultural practices such as planting exotic species and intensive grazing of sheep and cattle, may also affect food availability for bears.

Roads, development and intensification of farming cause fragmentation of suitable bear habitat, resulting in areas too small for viable bear populations, and causing remaining populations to become isolated and vulnerable to disease and inbreeding. Roads in particular, are barriers to bear movements, and collisions with vehicles are a significant cause of mortality. Two bear populations in the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain are now separated by highways and a railway, as well as habitat loss, and unless a habitat corridor can be reinstated, there is a possibility that these bears, particularly the eastern population, may become extinct.

Habitat corridors are vital to renew or maintain links between isolated bear populations, as is the use of wildlife underpasses and overpasses over busy roads. Increased knowledge about bears’ use of their habitat is important in helping to design guidelines for development and human activity in bear country.

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