Brown bear (Ursus arctos) is endangered across most of Europe and protected under Annexes II and IV of the EU Habitats Directive. Greece has the southernmost population of the species with only 400-500 individuals in two disjunct populations in the Rhodopes and Pindos mountain ranges that are in an ‘Unfavourable-inadequate’ conservation status (Article 17 reporting). The Apennines are home to an endemic subspecies - the Apennine or Marsican brown bear that is critically endangered (IUCN Vertebrate Red List of Italy). Its population is very small and an increase in fatalities threatens the extinction of this subspecies. In both Greece and Italy, population recovery is limited due to inadequate conditions within dispersal corridors. Creating favourable conditions for bears through the corridors would lead to a significant population and range expansion. Expansion through these corridors and colonisation of new areas is hampered by poor human-bear coexistence. Whilst studies show that there is general support for the conservation of bears in both Italian and Greek regions, a range of negative human-bear interactions still occur. Poor acceptance and understanding of bears can lead to illegal killing and weak support for conserving bears. This problem of poor human-bear coexistence is not unique to Europe. In British Columbia, Canada, substantial efforts have been made to improve coexistence through the development of a concept called ‘Bear Smart Communities’ (BSC). This concept consists of a voluntary, preventative conservation strategy that involves communities, businesses and individuals in a dialogue to resolve the root causes of human-bear conflicts. The concept has been tested in one of the identified bear corridors in the Apennines. The pilot BSC programme showed outstanding results, with a 99% reduction in bear damage in three years and an increase in bear presence.
The LIFE Bear-Smart Corridors project is expected to improve the conservation status of the brown bear in Italy (subspecies: Ursus arctos marsicanus) and Greece (Ursus arctos) in six previously identified bear expansion corridors, by developing 18 Bear Smart Communities. By gaining the support of local communities and key stakeholders, the conservation actions will be implemented in both core and corridor areas for bears, with the main objective to develop measures aiming to improve human-bear coexistence. This will allow bears to migrate into and across critical corridors to substantially increase bear range and population.
The specific objectives of the project are to:
- Adapt the Bear Smart Communities concept to the European context by developing examples in Italy and Greece;
- Improve human-bear coexistence in the project areas by increasing the social acceptance of bears;
- Reduce the incidence of bears approaching villages in targeted bear dispersal corridors, by preserving natural food in wild and semi-natural areas away from towns;
- Reduce the threat of retaliatory killing of bears, by reducing the number of properties at risk and value of monetary losses resulting from bear’s raiding properties, especially in the agricultural sector;
- Improve habitat suitability and food sources, and reduce direct threats to bears posed by abandoned water wells and the setting of snares;
- Develop an enterprise strategy for the project areas through collaboration with the business community to deliver conservation outcomes, and to generate revenues and benefits for the local communities;
- Develop dedicated Bear Intervention Units to implement the principles of the Bear Smart Communities, while monitoring and improving human-bear coexistence with the help of local staff and volunteers;
- Disseminate the best practices, especially the Bear-Smart Community concept, to other interested parties, and encourage replication in at least three other areas.
Through the project actions in Italy, a significant expansion of Apennine brown bears is expected. In Greece, the project will improve habitat quality and increase dispersal opportunities in two important corridors for bears. The project area includes 22 Natura 2000 sites in the Central Apennines and a further 6 in Greece, which will generally benefit from the conservation and management actions. Brown bear is an umbrella species, and its conservation also improves habitat conditions for other species listed in the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive, such as wolf (Canis lupus), wild cat (Felis silvestris), and griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus).
- 18 Bear Smart Communities developed (16 in Italy and 2 in Greece);
- 30% reduction of agricultural enterprise damage by bears in Italy by the end of the project;
- At least 1 bear-related tourism package developed in each bear smart community;
- At least 21 water wells made permanently safe to prevent bears from drowning;
- Reduce by 20% the incidences of livestock guarding dog mortality due to poisoning in the project areas in Greece;
- Habitat enhancement of 500 ha (in Italy) improving food availability for bears, away from villages;
- Improved conditions in 1 100 km2 (Italy) and 648 km2 (Greece) of bear corridor directly resulting from implementing Bear Smart Communities;
- Connecting 1 300 km2 of habitat considered suitable for bear expansion in Italy but currently under-occupied (potential long-term doubling of population size);
- Potentialexpansionofbearrangeon5 000km2in Greece (the connection of two isolated bear populations allows genetic mixing and greater resilience of the meta-population).