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Reintroduced bears flourish in Italy, but feed on livestock

A project to reintroduce brown bears to the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy is encountering vehement opposition from locals concerned about their livestock.

It has been hailed as one of Europe’s greatest conservation success stories, but a project to reintroduce brown bears to the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy is encountering vehement opposition from locals concerned about their livestock.

Local farmers say the animals have developed a worrying taste for their livestock and villagers say they fear it is only a matter of time before a human is attacked.

The project, called Life Ursus, began more than a decade ago, when 10 European brown bears captured in the wild in Slovenia were let loose in the forests and mountains of the picturesque Dolomite range, which is a mecca for skiers in the winter and hikers in the summer. The bears have thrived, and there are now an estimated 50 adult bears and cubs roaming the high mountain meadows and dense forests of the Trentino region, which encompasses much of the Dolomites.

There has been growing alarm, however, over the rising number of bear attacks on domestic livestock. Five donkeys have been killed in the last month, two of them belonging to Wanda Moser, the owner of a small farm in the mountain village of Strembo.

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She was so incensed by the deaths last month of her pet donkeys, Beppe and Cirillo, that she deposited one of the carcasses outside the nearby headquarters of the Adamello Brenta National Park. She also set up a group called the Anti-Bear Committee and has collected hundreds of signatures calling for the reintroduction project to be canceled and the bears to be relocated. She became even more resolved when a bear killed one of her goats. 

Americans and Canadians may be accustomed to dealing with black bears rifling through trash in backcountry campsites and the occasional fatal attack by a grizzly bear, but coexistence with bears is a novelty for most Europeans. While hikers in the Dolomites have not yet had to adopt the sort of “bear aware” measures familiar to hikers in North America, such as hanging food from trees at night or carrying a walking stick with a bell attached, that could change. A man and his son were followed by an adult bear while out walking in the forest recently, according to local media reports.

Ms. Moser and others believe that there have been several similar incidents, but that they have been “hushed up” by the authorities in order to safeguard the Life Ursus project.

“People here are desperate to get rid of them. We feel terrorized,” says Moser, who fears that children playing in the woods and fields are particularly vulnerable to a bear attack. Moser adds that the bears are also “victims” of the situation: They should not have been reintroduced into the region in the first place, she says. 

What to do about the bears?

What to do with the bears has become a hot political topic in the Trentino region, with opposing groups of legislators arguing for and against its merits.

Most vehement in their opposition are members of the Northern League, a center-right party which was allied with Silvio Berlusconi at the national level until he resigned from his third stint as prime minister late last year.

The party’s regional representatives have arranged a number of anti-bear stunts, including a banquet at which guests were served bear goulash made from actual bears — a provocation that created an uproar among conservationists. 

Maurizio Fugatti, a member of the Northern League, said that enthusiasm for the Life Ursus project had “evaporated” because it had “put at risk the safety of citizens.”

A recent survey by the local government showed that support for reintroducing the species into Trentino was at 30 percent — down from 70 percent in 2003.

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The Life Ursus project is funded by the European Union and managed by the local authorities in Trentino, which has an autonomous status reflecting its history as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until the end of the World War I, when it was handed to Italy.

Not a single bear killing in Italy

Claudio Griffo, a forestry and fauna officer from the province, said fears of bears attacking humans were unfounded.

In 150 years of data, there was not a single documented case of a bear killing a person in Italy, he says.

“At the international level this reintroduction project is considered a huge success. But we acknowledge that for it to continue to work, we need to have people’s support on the ground,” Mr. Griffo says.

Landowners can obtain funding to erect electric fences around their livestock and are paid compensation in the event of animals being killed by bears.

The longterm vision — which is now under threat — is that the bears of Trentino will spread into the neighboring regions of South Tyrol, Lombardy, and the Veneto, and eventually link up with a large population in Slovenia. 

The debate in the Dolomites is likely to unfold in other parts of Europe, as big animals make a comeback after centuries of trapping, shooting, and poisoning. Wolves, lynx, wild boar, and large birds of prey such as vultures and eagles are rebounding, aided by hunting bans, reintroduction programs, and rural depopulation, which has allowed large tracts of farmland to revert to their natural state.