Beware of bear: Return of the brown bear to Switzerland

Posted on 24 November 2005

After a 100-year hiatus, it seems that bears may be coming back to Switzerland after the first brown bear was sighted recently in the Swiss canton of Graubünden, the eastern most part of the country. For some, the return of the bear was marked with great excitement, for others, a sense of apprehension. Find out more about brown bears in the Alps.

By Mark Schulman

After a 100-year hiatus, it seems that bears may be coming back to Switzerland. Well, at least one. This past summer, the first brown bear was sighted in the Swiss canton of Graubünden, the eastern most part of the country just shy of the border with Italy and Austria. For some, the return of the bear was marked with great excitement, for others, a sense of apprehension. It also raised a lot of questions. Where did it come from? Was it lost or just passing through? And more poignantly, is this a sign of more to come?!

Bear populations were once found in healthy numbers throughout Switzerland, as well as most of Europe. So long a part of the natural landscape that the Swiss capital, Bern (founded in the 12th century), is named after the bear, with the animals today prominently featured on the city’s flag and coat of arms. But, the honour didn’t last long as the bear — as well as other large carnivores like the wolf and lynx — were quickly persecuted to extinction.

“Bears by nature are not aggressive and have no natural enemies,” said Marzio Barelli, a local historian in the Swiss Canton of Ticino, “but they were hunted by men who perceived them as a threat to their herds.”

In his recently published book, he notes that 167 bears were killed in Ticino alone from 1808-1885, with hunters rewarded a handsome bounty of 30 Francs for a male and 50 Francs for a female — about a month’s salary at the time.

“There were no conservation organizations back then. No one at that time raised a voice of protest against the bear’s elimination,” added Barelli.

With bear persecution in full swing, coupled with population growth, industrialization, and forest conversion for agriculture and logging that saw bear habitat encroached upon over the years, the writing was on the wall. The last bear in Switzerland was killed in 1904 in the eastern alpine valley of S-charl, just near the entrance of what is today the Swiss National Park.

Crossing the border
One hundred years later a bear pops up again from nowhere. Was it a hallucination? Magic? No, reproduction.

The adolescent male bear that was first spotted in Switzerland in July 2005 near the national park in the Müstair Valley was from a small population of about 20 found in the neighboring Trentino region of Italy, about 50km away from the Swiss border. This population of alpine bears has been reproducing steadily since their numbers were boosted by ones relocated from Slovenia between 1999–2002. According to WWF, the global conservation organization, there were still about 70 bears living in Trentino in the 1950s, but by the 1990s, that number had dwindled to three older males, so at that point offspring were out of the question.

“The relocation of brown bears from Slovenia to Italy was important for preserving one of the last alpine populations,” said Joanna Schoenenberger, a large carnivore expert with WWF’s European Alpine Programme.
“With several ‘green’ corridors connecting Italy to Switzerland, it was really only a matter of time before one of the offspring would leave its den and find its way across the border. There is enough food and space for them here. Their comeback is a sign that the overall alpine environment has improved.”

A recent study commissioned by WWF last March showed that the bear population in northern Italy could find well-suited habitat in the Swiss Alps in the event that bears would start roaming over the border in search of food. The study, conducted by the Swiss carnivore research institute, KORA, also identified three main corridors leading from Trentino to the southern Swiss valleys where bears could roam without being disturbed for the most part by humans. One corridor runs 87km through Italy’s Stelvio National Park to the Swiss valley of Müstair. The second goes 74km to Zernez through the Swiss National Park. And the third, only 37.5km-long, ends up in the idyllic valley of Poschiavo right on the Italian border.

According to the study, about 90 per cent of all three corridors are covered by forests and largely avoids open areas and human settlements. But as this region of Switzerland has a high number of visitors coming year around to enjoy such backcountry activities as hiking, biking and skiing, encounters with a bear become all the more possible.

“Should the bear actually return to Switzerland, its long-term survival will depend not only on good environmental factors, but on a positive attitude from humans, particularly the local population,” Schoenenberger emphasized.

Protecting the honey pot
Hikers were among the first to see the sole bear trample its way into Switzerland. Word spread fast and tourists started pouring into the area to get a glimpse of history being made. This was good news for the Swiss tourism industry, which noted that hotel occupancies were well above the normal summer peak, as were other sectors of the industry, such as restaurants and outdoor excursion companies. As one hotel owner explained: “As long as people see the bear, visitors will keep coming.”

But not everyone has been so happy about the bear’s arrival.

Although bears are easily satisfied with nuts, berries, roots, insects, and of course, the quintessential honey comb, as omnivores they do have a taste for meat. Being so big and bulky, they are not exactly the greatest of hunters, like the wolf, but they are known to go after deer or other small game when presented the opportunity. It is opportunities like this which have Swiss farmers worried and some up-in-arms, particularly as this particular bear is reported to have killed 27 sheep and at least one calf in a very short stretch of time from July to September.

“After he killed so many sheep, peoples’ attitudes quickly changed,” said Chasper Michael, a local wildlife official near the ski resort town of Scuol where the bear passed through.

“It’s been a hundred years since we have had bears and we’re just not used to it. Maybe farmers will have to start changing their practices if more come back.”

Since ridding its territory of large carnivores long ago, Swiss farmers got used to letting their livestock graze without protection in the high alpine meadows. But after a few high-profile wolf attacks (like the bear, wolves have also been absent from the Swiss landscape for about a century, but several have been spotted coming from France and Italy since 1995), some started taking new measures to protect their herds.

Improved fencing and the introduction of sheep dogs, like Great Pyreneans and Maremmano-Abruzzeses, have been employed in some places. According to WWF, which is working with farmers in Switzerland to protect their animals, there are about 100 dogs being used by shepherds for this purpose. Although not 100 per cent foolproof, there is evidence that they have reduced livestock loss in some areas.

Jachen Planta, a sheep farmer in the Müstair Valley where the bear first entered Switzerland, thanks his Maremmano-Abruzzeses for scaring the bear away, even though he didn’t see it himself. Although the dogs were being used to scare off fox and raven, he is convinced that they scared off the bear one night after a marathon three-hour uncontrollable barking session. A few nights later the bear attacked a nearby flock that didn’t use guard dogs.

Trash management
Responding to the presence of the bear, Swiss National Park authorities were quick to put out a fact sheet to park visitors that included the basics (and common sense): stick to the trails, make noise (a bell attached to one’s backpack is encouraged) and avoid leaving food around campsites. In the event of crossing paths with a bear it says to keep one’s distance, stay still, but if attacked to lie in the fetal position with one’s hands covering the neck. Fortunately, no one this past summer had to assume that position.

It is extremely rare that brown bears kill or seriously injure humans. But with the encroachment of humans into bear habitat (or bears into human habitat), bears can easily become attracted to human-related food sources such as garbage dumps, litter bins and dumpsters.

“Once a bear comes to associate human activity with food, human-bear encounters will most likely become more common,” warned Schoenenberger.

“The real danger to the bear in the Alps would come from losing its natural shyness of humans and learning to associate people with food. That’s why it’s important to educate people about the bear’s behaviour and how to act properly in its presence. We want to learn how to live with the bear again.”

Trash management is one way to avoid the problem from the beginning. WWF is working on education programmes for the public to manage their trash. This includes using “bear-proof” garbage cans with sealable metal lids.

“This is the first line of defense to keep bears out of human territory,” Schoenenberger added. “However, if a bear starts getting used to people and becomes a problem, we may be forced to use other tools at our disposal such as firecrackers and rubber bullets, so that it becomes a bit more wary of us.”

For now, bears are protected under Swiss law, as well as under the 1979 Berne Convention on the Conservation of the European Wildlife and Natural Habitats. But some Swiss cantons, particularly those that may be affected by a real or imaginary “bear invasion” want to have to power to kill a bear in the event that it injures or even kills a person or is perceived as a real threat.

While hunters, local government officials and WWF continue to work out the details of future bear management, the one bear that started all the talking has conveniently disappeared. In fact, he hasn’t been seen since the end of September, with many believing that it has already returned to Italy to hibernate.

For the time being, Switzerland continues to have no bears on its territory. But come spring, the bear may be back and perhaps this time he might not be alone.

* Mark Schulman is Managing Editor at WWF International


• WWF works for the protection of the Alps at national level, through its national organizations and at international level, through the European Alpine Programme. Launched in 1999 by WWF-Austria, WWF-France, WWF-Germany, WWF-Italy and WWF-Switzerland, the WWF European Alpine Programme works to achieve the conservation of biodiversity in the Alps through cross-boundary collaboration with other NGOs and interested partners.

• WWF and its partners are working around the world to reduce bear-human conflicts. This includes: environmental education activities on bear conservation (Austria, Colombia, Slovakia, Venezuela and Switzerland); bear distribution research (Austria, Colombia, Italy and Slovenia); establishing WWF bear advocates who act as the first contact for local people to address bear concerns and to monitor and identify bear damage (Austria); developing management plans for brown bears with guidelines for dealing with bears that cause problems for humans, compensation issues, protected area management, hunting management, and/or data collection (Austria, Romania and Switzerland); and designing new national and international strategies that respond to the biological and ecological needs of the spectacled bear (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela).

• Compared with its North American ‘cousin’, the grizzly, which can weigh over 500kg, the European brown bear (Urus arctos) tends to be smaller, with males weighing up to 350kg and females up to 200kg. Brown bears have a large hump of muscle over their shoulders which give strength to the forelimbs for digging. Their forearms end in massive paws tipped with extremely powerful claws that can be up to 15cm in length. In spite of their size, some have been clocked at speeds in excess of 50kph.

• There are estimated to be about 200,000 brown bears in the world. The largest populations are in Russia with 125,000, United States with 32,500 and Canada with 21,750. In Europe, there are about 13,000 brown bears in some ten separate fragmented populations, including Italy, Austria and Slovenia. They are extinct in the United Kingdom, extremely threatened in France and endangered in most of Central Europe. The Carpathian brown bear population is the largest one in Europe outside Russia, estimated at around 5,000–8,000 (source: Wikipedia).

• Swiss-Italian television TSI1 will air an environmental programme on the return of the bear to Switzerland on 4 December 2005 at 11:45GMT.
Bear populations were once found in healthy numbers throughout Switzerland, but years of persecution led to their extinction. The last bear in Switzerland was killed in 1904 in the eastern alpine valley of S-charl.
© WWF / Michel Gunther
From 1808-1885, 167 bears were killed in the Swiss Canton of Ticino. A 19th century bear trap on display. Bellinzona, Switzerland.
© WWF / Mark Schulman
"Bear" country outside the alpine resort town of Scuol. Graubünden, Switzerland.
© WWF / Mark Schulman
Guard dogs are being trained to protect livestock from fox, raven and wolves. There is also some evidence that they have scared bears away too. Ticino, Switzerland.
© Mark Schulman / WWF
Joanna Schoenenberger (left), large carnivore expert with WWF's European Alpine Programme, talks about the possible return of brown bears to Switzerland with local wildlife official Chasper Michael. Scuol, Graubünden, Switzerland.
© WWF / Mark Schulman