The Pyrennes in the south west of France, and the corresponding area across the border, are a wonderful area of wilderness. There are currently about 64 bears living in this area. So where are we on the road to recovery?
Were the the entire Pyrennes mountains wild, it is thought that these mountains could support 600 bears. However, this area is not an area that is set aside for wilderness – there is a whole population of humans living in these mountains (almost 700,000 people live here).
It is thought that the bear population of the Pyrennes could potentially get to 250 in its current form.
American Black bears are far and away the most numerous bear in the world by some margin. It is thought that at least 800,000 American black bears still roam the continental north America – though the closely related Asiatic black bear has a far smaller population of about 50,000 spread across south-eastern Asia and is therefore far more endangered (the spectacled bear is also thought to be relatively closely related).
In America, black bears are relatively common sites where they are found.
In the 1990s the bear population of this mountain range consisted of about 50-65 in the western population, and 14-20 in the east. No more than 30 years later, that population numbers 300-400 (as much as a 6 fold increase).
How did they do this, and can the success be replicated. It is thought that just two stems were responsible for their recovery.
Firstly, efforts to protect the environment have been successful. With a healthier ecosystem, the country is more capable of sustaining a bear population.
Secondly, education of both locals and visiting tourists has lead to a greater acceptance of the bears. Furthermore, with the success of tourism, locals increasingly seeing the bears as an asset rather than a threat.
These bears are almost entirely vegetarian, and while efficient hunters whatever meat the consume, here it is usually carrion – animals that have naturally died, or been killed by other animals.
As a result, the bears are far less of a threat than wolves (though even wolves can cause little threat if farming is set up correctly). Bee keepers are threatened to a greater degree by the bears, however by returning to ancient bee keeping habits, this can be reduced to a minimum.
Back in the 1950s there is thought to have been as many as 1000 bears in the wilds of Spain, so the population still has some recovery to go through.
Never-the-less this is a good news story that is extremely encouraging that large carnivores and omnivores are still capable of surviving in the modern landscape of a western European country.
This is well worth a visit. A link will hopefully be added to this page in the next week or so
The recovery of wolves bears and lynx over the last several generations in western Europe has been nothing short of astounding.
In the 1960s the population of the iberian wolf did not number more than a few hundred, yet now there are 2500. Similarly, bears got very low but now more than 300 roam – though this still has some way to go. The Iberian lynx was not heavily hunted, yet was still almost wiped out due to human introduced diseases wiping out most of the rabbits in Spain.
France destroyed its wolf population completely, though they are back, having crossed from Italy about 20-30 years ago. Bears were similarly almost wiped out, except a tiny relict population in the Pyrenes. Unfortunately, this population has not done well and is essentially only there because of bear translocations from further east. Similarly, Lynx were eradicated by 1900 though this has been reversed by reintroduction projects. There are a couple of zones where lynx are found (a reintroduction project in Switzerland returned them to part of france), However, there is not going to be more than 130 lynx in the whole country and the population does not seem to be growing.
Italy retained a wolf population, though in the 1970s there was only 70-100 left. Nowadays, 1000-2000 wolves roam the country, and it is roaming members of this population that seeded the population in France. 80-90 bears remain in Italy (the Marsican bear), and while this is a more healthy population than that in France, it is still not enough to be secure. Lynx were eradicated but have been reintroduced, though they are not thought to have established a population that would be secure longterm without continued translocations.
Scandinavia could in some ways be thought of as a strong-point for all three animals in western-Europe, though there are still views that are not helpful. The encouraging thing here, is that the wolf is able to return from Russia. There are no more than 500 wolves in this area, and Norway has a relatively strange view of the wolf, with human hunting elk very popular, wolves are seen as a nuisance and kept at a minimum. Norway has a similar view of the bear, with them being far more common in Sweden. Lynx are widespread in this part of the world.
Why should we champion the return of these animals? They have the capacity to rebalance environments, as well as allowing forests to operate properly – in the UK, as we are missing these predators, replanting forests are often hindered by deer grazing them to much. There are other reasons though. These animals can be a big tourist draw, allowing people to make a good income, often in places where there is little other economic potential. In the UK, return of wolves and lynx would save hundreds of human lives each year by reducing deer collisions on our roads.
Will their recovery continue? I hope so, though it seems to very much be an area where progress is two steps forwards and one step back.
The UK has plans to start reintroducing bison to the UK. While this is very exciting, these are large animals and when they are allowed to roam free they could hurt humans. This is highly unlikely for any one individual, but may occasionally cause significant injury when looked at as a whole.
Why do I bring this up? The main reason that wolves have not been reintroduced to the UK, is human fears. It is true that we would likely suffer low levels of predation of livestock, yet the main fear is of attacks on humans. While wolves can act aggressively towards humans on occasion, injury to the human is incredibly rare (the wolf will almost always run before the human gets close enough to be at risk).
Lynx is an even easier animal to suggest. There are no fatal attacks on humans as far as I’m aware, and as forest specialists they are even less likely to take sheep and wolves. What’s more, while a large links watching industry is likely to Spring up, these animals are incredibly hard to see. This means that without going to extreme lengths people are unlikely to encounter them and therefore be scared by them.
Beavers have been given the right to remain. Indeed genetically correct beavers (i.e. European beavers) are multiplying rapidly, and gradually spreading out from where they were first discovered on the River Otter in Devon, with the population thought to number at least 300-500. These animals are being reintroduced all over the place. The Tayside population in Scotland is thought number at least 1000 animals and these is spread across a large part of Scotland though they still have a long way to go. Beavers however, rarely threaten human life and while they can do some damage are easier to accept.
It’s thought that the UK population of boar number at least 4000, with between 1/3 and 1/2 of these living in the forest of Dean. A pair of boar can have as many as 30 offspring in one season- meaning that without regular culling the population could very rapidly explode. They are having very positive effects on woodlands in the areas that they exist, and my hope is that some of the animals could be moved rather than being shot. Boar unlike beavers can certainly be a threat to humans, though again will only hurt people when they feel threatened.
Other species like bears have had trials done, and likely would be far easier than lynx or wolves to live alongside. This is because as omnivores bears spend much of the year eating vegetation. It is true that some bears take to eating many sheep, but this is not common, and it is entirely possible to cull or move animals that take out this habit. Bears could also create vast tourism in areas that they live.
Animals such as pine martens should be given a helping hand. Locally extinct across much of the UK, they should be reintroduced to woodlands up and down the country. Apart from restoring a native mammal, the grey squirrel – an invasive animal which does much more financial damage each year than the pinemartin ever has, would be rapidly removed, this in turn could allow the red squirrel to start to repopulate the UK
I hope that by 2050 all these animals have thriving populations in the UK. If this was the case, then we would have rebalanced the natural world in the UK allowing it to thrive in a way that it hasn’t for centuries. Of course with precious little remaining wilderness we may find that we do not have space for anything more than a handful of some of these species. I believe even this would be of use.
It is often suggested that bears are merely opportunistic when it comes to meat eating. The suggestion is that bears are vegetarians who are capable of scavenging from dead animals.
Now, of course we need to be careful as bears have a wide range of intelligences. Brown bears have an intelligence on par with chimpanzees, where as black bears are far less bright (though they are still one of the brightest animals).
Most scavengers are relatively small. Animals like jackals are unable to make large kills. Furthermore, the amount left behind by lion and leopard is usually more than enough for a jackal to survive on.
In the northern hemisphere though, bears get a great deal of their calories from scavenging. They have an incredibly keen sense of smell, allowing them to find dead animals,
However unlike the jackal, they are very capable of hunting. They can be seen from time to time, mixing the two.
Bears, particularly Grizzly bears, are very strong. In peak health, a large bear is more than capable of taking on a pack of wolves. They also require huge quantities of calories, and before going into hibernation, this will often push them to take bigger and bigger risks.
This is not hugely rare behaviour, but it is far rarer that it be filmed.
Back in 1975, the American Grizzly bear was declared endangered. With only minor differences, the American Grizzly bear is the same species as the European bear, that lives from Western Spain, through Europe to the Kamchatka bear of far Eastern Russia.
In 1975 the USA lower 48 states grizzly bear population numbered somewhere between 136 animals and 312, so it was essential that it was protected. Nowerdays the same 48 states have a population of around 1500, but given that this number would have been as high as 50,000 when people started migrating to the USA in large number, this recovery is only just getting going.