Wolves and Bears Stage Comeback in Crowded, Urban Europe

Big carnivores are on the rise across Europe, a new study finds, as farmlands revert to wildlife-friendly habitat.
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Brown bears (Ursus horribilus), called grizzlies in the United States, are now more numerous in Europe than in the contiguous United States.

Europe, the birthplace of the "Little Red Riding Hood" legend and the Big Bad Wolf, is now home to twice as many wolves as the contiguous United States, a new study finds, despite being half the size and more than twice as densely populated.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, reports that Europe, one of the most industrialized landscapes on Earth, with many roads and hardly any large wilderness areas, is nonetheless "succeeding in maintaining, and to some extent restoring, viable large carnivore populations on a continental scale."

A team of more than 50 leading carnivore biologists across Europe, from Norway to Bulgaria, details in the research a broad recovery of four large carnivore species: wolves, brown bears, the Eurasian lynx, and the wolverine.

"There is a deeply rooted hostility to these species in human history and culture," the study notes. And yet roughly a third of Europe, and all but four of the continent's 50 nations, are now home to permanent and reproducing populations of at least one of these predators.

So, what if European travelers suddenly stopped going to Yellowstone National Park to see grizzly bears and wolves, instead flocking to see even more of the same species in their own backyards—say, within an hour or two of Rome? What if the "call of the wild"—the sound of wolves howling in the night—became more a European than a North American experience? This improbable scenario may be closer to reality than we imagine.

An estimated 17,000 brown bears (Ursus horribilus, the same species as North America's grizzly) now inhabit 22 countries—compared with just 1,800 grizzly bears in the U.S. Lower 48. (If you are in Rome, you can see them just two hours away, at Abruzzo National Park. For wolves, you need travel only about 40 minutes, to the vicinity of Hadrian's villa.)

What's the key to this "underappreciated conservation success story"? A study last year from the Zoological Society of London and BirdLife International attributed the recovery of many European bird and mammal species to new habitat, created as rural populations have abandoned marginal farmlands and moved into cities.

The new study places greater emphasis on legal protections under the European Union, particularly the EU Habitats Directive, which functions like the Endangered Species Act in the United States. Animals in Norway and Switzerland, countries that are not part of the EU and are thus exempt from that directive, have lagged far behind their recovery elsewhere in Europe, according to the study.

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A wild Carpathian gray wolf in Poland is one of several species of large carnivores that are on the rise in Europe.

Europe's Change in Thinking

The study's lead author, Guillaume Chapron of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, also attributed the recovery of predators to a profound shift in psychology, from hostility to tolerance, dating back to the environmental movement of the 1970s. "The European model shows that people and predators can coexist in the same landscapes," he said. "I do not mean that it is a peaceful, loving coexistence; there are always problems. But if there is a political will, it is possible to share the landscape with larger predators."

The new study presents this "coexistence model" as a direct challenge to American thinking about wilderness, which separates people and nature. That model, which has spread from its 19th-century origins at Yellowstone National Park to many countries around the world, argues that large predators can survive only in protected areas or wilderness. This American approach to conservation—essentially roping off certain areas—was born in reaction to "former policy goals to exterminate these species" elsewhere, according to the new study.

But if Europe had tried to practice American-style predator conservation, the study continues, "there would hardly be any large carnivore populations at all, because most European protected areas are too small to host even a few large carnivore reproductive units."

As human populations expand, further constricting national parks and wilderness areas, the coexistence model could provide the only way forward for many regions, Chapron said. California, for instance, is currently debating the likely return of breeding wolf packs, and a petition to reintroduce grizzly bears. "Well, look at the European example," Chapron suggested. "You can have a lot of wolves and bears in California; you just have to move to a coexistence mindset."

Finding the Right Level of "Wildness"

Coexistence is, of course, not easy. In Chapron's native France, farmers have recently staged outraged protests against wolf attacks on sheep, and LeMonde recently declared "La Guerre du Loup," the War of the Wolves. Ségolène Royal, a former presidential candidate and the current minister of the environment, claimed that children are now afraid to go to sleep at night because "there are too many wolves!"

But scapegoating wolves is easier than addressing more complex underlying issues. For instance, Chapron said, the real cause of the decline in the sheep industry in France isn't the wolf, it's the arrival of cheaper competition from New Zealand. It's easier for a politician to seem to stand up for sheep farmers by blaming wolves.

Dealing with those kinds of emotional responses will require programs to help farmers and others adapt, said Frans Schepers, managing director of Rewilding Europe. For areas that have been free of major predators for a hundred years, this can mean relearning old methods, including the use of guard dogs, night corrals, and shepherds.

It may also require removing problem animals in certain situations. "It has to be done carefully," he said, "but that's what you need to do to have people accept living with these animals."

Schepers praised the new study for demonstrating that coexistence is possible: "People have this general picture of Europe that we lost all our nature and lost our wildlife. What the rest of the world and a lot of Europeans still can learn from this is that conservation works. If we have the resources, if we have proper strategy, if we put in our effort, it actually works."

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