The Adamello Brenta regional park is the last area in Italy in which the Alpine brown bear (Ursus arctos) can be found. A decade ago, its indigenous population of brown bears was reduced to just three or four individuals, found in three sites in the park (now SCIs within the Natura 2000 network). The population was considered practically extinct. This LIFE project aimed to build on earlier efforts (LIFE96 NAT/IT/003152), also funded under the LIFE programme, to help preserve and develop the population in the region. Research indicates that the Adamello Brenta population is genetically closest to that of the Trento bears found in Slovenia. Five of these were captured over a two-year period, under the earlier (phase 1) conservation project, and the individuals were gradually released into the Brenta park area, with positive results.
Under its second phase, this project aimed to continue the actions already started under the earlier project, which ran from 1996-2000. Specifically, this follow-on project aimed to help the species reach a so-called “minimum viable population” (MVP), estimated at between 40 and 60 individuals. The release of five further specimens captured in Slovenia was a central focus of the project. The release sites would be selected to guarantee the possibility of contact with the native population and with the other individuals introduced previously. The bears would be monitored using radio tracking techniques, which both allow the collection of scientific data on their movements and use of territory and would enable the tracing of individual bears in the event of significant damage, or harm to property or people. In tandem with these actions, an intensive environmental awareness-raising and education campaign would be carried out. This would include the distribution of thematic leaflets, talks in schools and numerous public meetings held in the major centres of the area. In this way it was hoped that the species would gain further acceptance by the local population. In order to limit any possible conflicts with human activities, preventive measures, such as the erection of electric fences to protect livestock, would also be undertaken to limit any damage done by the bears, while provision would also be made to compensate any damage caused by them.
The project fully achieved its objectives. Its main results are as follows: 1. The initial phase of the conservation plan of the Brown Bear in the Alps, launched by the National Institute of Wild Fauna (INFS) ahead of the LIFE co-funding, was successfully completed with the establishment of a population of 10 bears over the life-time of the two Adamello Brenta LIFE Nature projects. In 2002, two cubs were born, followed by two more in 2003, and another five in 2004. This underlines the good adaptation of the released animals to their new environment.
2. The efforts devoted by the beneficiary of this project to awareness-raising activities, such as organising public meetings, publishing educational and other information material was significant and resulted in benefits not originally foreseen. These actions were particularly effective in generating continual information about the project, which helped to win the support of locals. For example, a poll carried out by the project indicated a positive attitude of local people towards the presence of the bears. This result is attributed to the considerable efforts made to reassure people that the released bears were well controlled.
3. Scientific research carried out by the project has furthered technical methods’ identification, exchange and networking between organisations and individuals concerned with the conservation of the brown bear. These included the establishment of innovative capture, transport and release methods. A substantial quantity of data has been published to support this scientific research. These include documentation published on habitat suitability, habitat use, bear movements and ecological requirements etc.
Other results include:
- Indirectly: the elaboration of a national action plan on the brown bear by INFS (National Institute for Wild Fauna) on behalf of the Italian Ministry of the Environment. Although the beneficiary was not actively involved in the preparation of the plan, the project did contribute to the collection of data and other references concerning the brown bear.
- Improved perception: the project also helped to improve the perceptions among the local administrators and the population towards the Natura 2000 network. Incentive/pump priming effects (both in financial and in policy terms): the project prompted the interest of the provincial administration in the large carnivore. It has subsequently been appointed by the Ministry of the Environment as a leader authority on brown bear issues on the Alps. An additional outcome was the LIFE Co-op project with Slovenia and Austria targeting conservation of the species.
- Socio-economic effects: the project promoted the use of the brown bear image among local businesses, and also resulted in an increase in teaching modules in the schools and information for visitors to the area on the brown bear. This in turn required the establishment of an awareness raising and education unit in the park administration, currently employing seven staff.
- Finally, the future sustainability and continuation of the project’s achievements will depend on: (i) the long-term monitoring of indicators such as populations trends, distribution of the animals and reproductive parameters etc; and (ii) the continuation of awareness-raising and information activities.