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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Euro Bears

Air Date: Week of

There has been a surge of bear reintroduction programs across Europe. Right now, there are 100 wild bears living within 60 miles of Rome. And unlike many Americans, many Europeans want more of them. Sy Montgomery comments on the trend.


CURWOOD: Think Italy, and you might conjure up visions of frothy cups of cappuccino imbibed at picturesque outdoor cafes. Or plates of steaming pasta drizzled with exquisite olive oil. Or a language so seductive that when someone says, “Mi si sono roti les occiollis” it sounds like they are saying “I think you are the most handsome man in the world” instead of “I have broken my eyeglasses.” But that’s not what took commentator Sy Montgomery to Italy recently. It was bears.

MONTGOMERY: Most folks think the last bears in Italy were eating Christians in the Roman Coliseum two millennia ago. But Italy today has more bears than you might think. More than one hundred wild bears, in fact, live within 60 miles of the Italian capitol.

Actually, there are two populations of bears in Italy. And I'm not talking about the small, virtually harmless black bear of North America. No, this is the 500-pound, mountain-shouldered Brown Bear, the same species as our Grizzly. And people are, by and large, pretty happy about it.

If Western Europe has any complaints about bears, it’s that there aren’t enough. They want MORE. When one of the last wild bears in the Pyrenees was hunted down in November 2004, 1,000 French citizens took to the streets in protest. No wonder there's been a surge of bear reintroduction programs in France, Austria, and Italy.

One of the most recent took place in the northern Italian province of Trento. The European Union and the Italian National Wildlife Institute brought in 10 brown bears from Slovenia. Before, the population was down to three elderly males. Since then, one bear died in an avalanche; some died of old age; and one of the new bears left for Austria. But thanks to the birth of cubs, there are now thought to be 22 bears in the region. During a hike in the reintroduction area I saw fresh bear scat within 15 minutes. The bear had been eating ants.

Now, Europeans didn’t always feel this cozy about bears. Our fears of bears are deeply rooted in Old World prejudice and fears. Europeans nearly eradicated their bears, poisoned their waterways, and razed their great forests long before they ventured to America to continue that tradition. When President George W. Bush took office, one of his first acts was to squash a plan to bring grizzlies back to the remote Bitterroot Ranges of Idaho. Bears were too bloodthirsty to live in a place where there might be, well, a very small number of people and their livestock.

Europe's experience proves that fear was off base. At the 16th International Conference on Bear Research and Management in Italy, I watched video taken from hidden cameras that shows what usually happens when a person and a brown bear cross paths, or nearly do.

When a bear, with a sense of smell 100 times as keen as a human’s, detects a person approaching, it steps off the path, hides in the bushes, and once the person has passed, it goes on its way. It took Europeans a long time to learn the lesson that bears are not the monsters of fairy tales. But it doesn’t have to take 400 centuries of human occupation for Americans to realize we, too, can live with bears in our midst. Maybe if we just took a moment to relax, we could see that our far vaster, less crowded land has plenty of room – for people and predators, too.



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