Why Spain is Feeding the Bears

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OZY, Somiedo, Spain

Rosalía Garrido knew it was a bear. What else would ransack her apple orchard, stripping fruit from the branches and raking claws across the tree trunks? The municipal government of Somiedo, in the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain, reimbursed Garrido 24 euros for the damage, but she sorely missed the pleasure of homemade apple cider last year.

“They’re protected, so we can’t say there are too many bears,” Garrido said. “But there are too many bears. And more and more each year.”

All our lives we’ve been told not to feed the bears. But no one told us what to do when the bears take matters into their own paws — or when the government is paying for their food. After all, for centuries the protocol for bear-human interaction was basically fight or flight. Recent years, though, have seen the remarkable success of a pan-European movement to restore wild animal populations, which had been devastated by bounty hunting and habitat loss. Estimates show that predatory carnivores live in about a third of the European continent, often alongside humans. In Europe alone, some 17,000 bears are now scattered across 22 countries, thanks in part to directed conservation efforts.

The shift hasn’t always been easy, and more than Señora Garrido’s cider is at stake. The reappearance of wild wolves in Germany has caused some consternation, while certain farmers in Scotland worry about lynx raiding their livestock. Spain’s program to cultivate the brown bear population will bring ecotourists, some locals hope, and regenerate a region that has lost half its human population to urbanization over the past 40 years. But in some ways the effort has juxtaposed conservationist ideals with practical realities. As a 2013 European Commission report noted, human beings “have forgotten how to share their living space with big, hairy, fanged and potentially dangerous, large animals.”

To be sure, even Garrido appreciates the majesty of the bears that roam the hillsides and, as an owner of a guesthouse, appreciates how they extend the tourist season. In the bears’ favor, they need not be predators: Unlike wolves and big cats, they can get by on fruit, leaves, nuts and honey, as long as there’s enough to forage. That’s why a crucial part of Spain’s bear project, backed by the government and the EU, concerns supply. It aims to plant enough fruit and nut trees for the bears so that they won’t “attack human resources,” in the words of Fernando Ballesteros, coordinator of the nonprofit spearheading project Fundación Oso Pardo (Brown Bear Foundation). That means paying attention to seasonality, too, like how cherry trees fruit in June, before other bear food ripens. Ballesteros added: “If they have plenty of cherries, we can avoid attacks.”

Clusters of trees will also provide a food-and-shelter corridor between two isolated groups that live in the craggy Cantabrian Mountains — “stepping stones” of good bear habitat among the region’s orchards, ranches and villages. The hope is that bears in each group will be able to mate and reproduce without inbreeding — which would be devastating for their long-term survival — and expand the population well past its current 200.

But what about the people? In December, an article in the journal Science, which reported on the successes of the wildlife restoration movement in Europe, declared that humans and carnivores can successfully coexist. Indeed, many conservationists consider Somiedo Natural Park, where Garrido’s orchard is located, a model of successful human-bear coexistence. But even there, damage from bears is common — among apple trees, yes, but also among local beekeepers’ hives nearly every day in June and July, according to a park guard who wished to remain anonymous. The guard blamed the beekeepers, whom he accused of not taking preventive measures, like installing electric fences. “If you go on vacation with the keys left in the door, of course a robber will break in,” he said.

The Brown Bear Foundation is working to prevent conflict between humans and bears. It’s passing out free electric fences for beekeepers to encircle their hives with, teaching ranchers how to cohabit with bears and offering environmental education for kids. And, generally, hopes are high. “Bear tourism is good for this region. It brings people,” said Marcos Fidalgo, who grew up near Somiedo Natural Park.

Yet there are signs that the region isn’t quite ready for a bear-related tourism boom. There are currently no hard rules for safely viewing the bears in the park. Visitors are free to explore the public trails, and some locals give suggestions to curious tourists about where to look for bear dens. Though residents warn tourists not to try to touch the bears, no regulations protect bear viewers from the wild animals.

And ironically: If the project succeeds in expanding the bear population and attracting tourists, it could become a victim of its own success. Over the longer term, more tourism could harm Spain’s brown bears. More cars on the roads make it more likely that animals will get hit as they cross thoroughfares. Without rules, tourists eager to see bears may disturb their feeding or breeding. More bear tourism could harm humans, too: Bears could become habituated to humans, increasing the risk of attacks on people or municipal garbage. Tourists should be able to see bears easily, but only “in places where the tourists and the bears are both safe,” Ballesteros said. “It has to be regulated.”

Though she is unaffiliated with the conservation project in Spain, Cheryl Hojnowski, a Berkeley researcher who studies bear-human interaction, acknowledged the difficulties. “When you have high overlap between people and wildlife, and especially between people and large carnivores,” she noted, “it’s complicated.”