The return of the European grizzly

A joyous bear watching adventure in Spain suggests Europeans can co-exist with wild bears

A rustle of expectation passes through our small group. Our guide, Juan Carlos, has just unglued his powerful binoculars from his eyes, ‘She is there,’ he says dramatically, pointing across the steep valley that falls away beneath our feet to the woods and rocky outcrops on the other side. After an hour of sitting patiently and talking only in whispers, this is the moment we have been waiting for. She is a wild bear (Ursus arctos arctos), a relative of the North America Grizzly bear, and we are in Spain.

There’s excitement now as we watch the bear move in and out of sight; ambling over outcrops and disappearing into the woods grazing as she goes. We bombard Juan Carlos with questions. He is a patient and enthusiastic man; qualities you need to study bears. For the next three days Juan Carlos will accompany us as our bear watching guide through this stunning mountainous region in Asturias, northern Spain. However, guiding is not his usual occupation for he is a full-time scientist working for Fundación Oso Pardo (FOP, Brown Bear Foundation), an organization dedicated to helping Spain’s remaining wild bears survive.

The people who make a difference

Juan Carlos first came to the Cantabrian mountains in the mid-1980s to study wolves. But while his focus was the wolf, he became aware of the plight of another large wild creature – the bear. He recalls hearing reports of bears being killed but says little was known about bears at the time. However, that was all to change after the first Spanish brown bear census was taken. ‘The bears were close to extinction, maybe less than 50,’ he says, ‘people started to talk about what to do and a small group came together who wanted to remove snares and improve the quality of the bear habitat. They wanted to build a good relationship between themselves and the hunters and the anti-bear people.’ As a result, in 1992 FOP came into existence and Juan Carlos’ involvement in bear survival began.

Today, over 25 years later, FOP has stewarded both the bear habitat and bear-human relationship so successfully they have not only managed to rescue the Spanish brown bear from extinction (they now number 330) but they have also elevated its position to one of poster child for local environmentalism. Juan Carlos recalls that in the early years, those working for FOP didn’t know much about the bears and how to improve the local’s attitude to them. Indeed, their success is the result of years of patient scientific and sociological studies involving specialists from different backgrounds. Collectively known as the Bear Patrol these FOP employees include scientists such as Juan Carlos and experts in biodiversity conservation as well as educators, communicators and rangers who collaborate to tackle the challenges of creating a happy and prosperous coexistence for all creatures who share this landscape – humans included.

Changing the locals’ attitude

Later in the day Juan Carlos gives a power point presentation of FOP’s work. He shows an old photo, taken most likely in the 1980s, titled ‘The death of the last bear’. It records a disturbing scene: a bear’s body tied to the top of a car which is being driven through a village full of cheering spectators. Thankfully, the photograph is mislabelled; it was not the last bear. However, the photograph does dramatically document what the few remaining wild bears at that time were up against: a shrinking habitat and locals who believed the bears posed a threat to livestock and agriculture. It also highlights how much diplomacy and skill was needed in those early days to overcome generations of entrenched hostility to bears.

We see many examples of FOP’s impact on transforming local attitudes during the first two days. We are in a mountainous area called De Las Fuentes Del Narcea, a region of steep, deep valleys. It’s the type of habitat favoured by bears: rugged rocks with caves and open areas of wild flowers, grass, blueberry bushes and bright purple heather between extensive and densely packed mixed woodlands of beech, oak, ash, and cherry clothing the mountain slopes almost to the top. Here bears are depicted on billboards, as decorative motifs on buildings, and appear in tourism signs as the stars of the region. But that’s not the full story; waving his hand in a general southerly direction Juan Carlos remarks ‘over there in that valley they still shoot bears!’ Despite being classified as an endangered species, bears are still hunted and some end up in traps set for wild boar. There is clearly still work ahead to change hearts and minds about bears. Indeed, saving the Spanish bear is as much about changing the local attitude about the bear’s right roam as it is about restoring their habitat. The two conditions go hand in hand and one will not work without the other.

On the third and final day of our bear watching experience we visit an area where the right to roam is decidedly in favour of the bear. This is the region around the lovely, thriving town of Somiedo situated in the heart of Parque Natural De Somiedo in the Cantabrian Mountains. This is where Juan Carlos first came to as a biology student to study wolves. ‘It’s amazing!’ he says, smiling at the memory, ‘It used to be so hard to get here. No paved roads. Especially in the winter with the snow and almost no one living in the village anymore [but] now we have more people and more bears.’

From hunted to environmental poster child

However unlikely this sounds, the fact is that over the years, with the help of FOP’s knowledge, the bear population has increased while Somiedo’s population and popularity as a tourist destination has grown. It’s a heart-warming, eco-tourism model that many would like to see repeated for other similarly remote but dying, mountain villages. The existence of rarer mammals such as bear and wolf living in the mountains and valleys around Somiedo alongside the more common wild boar, badger, beech martins, chamois, sheep, red squirrels and roe deer visibly enhances and gives testament to the thriving wildness of the landscape. And it is this that draws people in.

Further up the valley in which Somiedo lies we begin to climb a trail for better bear viewing when Juan Carlos points to a prominent sign post. It informs hikers that trails are closed during the late summer months. Closing popular hiking trails allows bears to wander freely in their search for beach nuts, acorns and berries without fear of encountering people. This is important because bears need access to plenty of food to fatten up for winter, when some hibernate. Other parts of the forest are permanently off limits to people. FOP, is a co-owner of 14 woodlands containing areas of some of the highest quality habitat for the bears in the Cantabrian Mountains and they restrict human access to them. However, restricting access, while good for the bears, isn’t so good for communities who have used these forests for hunting and farming for generations. In order to help offset the loss of forest generated livelihood locals receive a twenty percent interest in profit that’s generated through bear and eco-tourism. This financial incentive in turn encourages their stewardship of the landscape.

Despite an increase in bear numbers and the growing acceptance and support of the locals for their wellbeing, bears are very hard to see. They are extremely shy creatures who prefer to keep their distance from humans. This makes an accidental close encounter with one quite rare. We ask Juan Carlos if people have been attacked by bears? ‘Yes!’ he answers, but adds emphatically that these instances are rare and have ‘always occurred in the bear’s habitat when people have got too close for [a bear’s] comfort.’ A casual visitor passing through the area will probably never see a bear. It takes a keen eye and knowledge of their favourite territories, to spot one. If you want to see a bear while visiting the region, you need to make bears the focus of your visit at least for a day or two.

A dedicated bear watching trip, such as mine, accompanied by bear experts, will definitely increase your chances of seeing one. But it’s still not a guarantee. The rugged nature of bear country with its dense woodlands and weather systems that often bring thick mists and rain, provides ample coverage for this shy creature and keeps them out of sight. That said, you may be lucky enough to find indirect evidence of bears in the form of a paw print on a remote trail, bear scat or a tuft of hair caught on a wire fence. There are some things though that are guaranteed to overcome a bear’s fear of people and draw them closer to habitation and that is their love of certain types of food.

The taste of honey and other sweet things

‘Bears love sweet things,’ laughs Juan Carlos. I immediately think of Poo Bear hugging his jar of honey and I’m on the right track because Juan Carlos continues ‘they love honey, cherries and apples and this is the main conflict with humans’. Bears are so attracted to village beehives and orchards that they will overcome their fear of humans, and when this happens they come down from the mountains on a raid, usually at night; stripping trees of fruit and smashing hives to get at the honey feast inside. Juan Carlos says these raids naturally take an emotional toll on the villagers, especially if livestock are killed. Fortunately, long-term bear studies in the region have provided FOP with the information they need to reduce these raids and find a solution.

It turns out that preventing bear raids is relatively simple: plant more cherry and apple trees in the bears favourite feeding places in the wilds and protect bee hives with electric fences. In addition, financially compensating farmers for lost livestock goes a long way towards mitigating these losses and improving the bear-human relationship.

The fruit tree planting has been particularly successful, not only does it keep bears away from orchards but it also brings volunteers, often city dwelling parents and their children, into the countryside and engages them with nature. Over the years, FOP volunteers have proved very loyal. Some who started volunteering in the early days as children are now themselves parents and bring their own children to these activities. It also builds a sense of value and pride in the local community around their bears.

Natural and unnatural obstacles to population growth

Bear watching starts early; we breakfast at 6.30 a.m., carpool with our guides and, after a vigorous hike to the morning viewing location, settle down into the lush grass for a long, quiet wait. In addition to our guide Juan Carlos, we have Elias, a young FOP warden and local resident. FOP makes a point of employing local people thereby keeping wages in the community while benefiting from local knowledge, contacts and influence in the area. Elias knows the whereabouts of two bears who live in his region. He tells us that we are more likely to see these bears because they are female, and female bears always remain in an area they know, especially when they have cubs. ‘Male bears,’ chips in Juan Carlos with a laugh,’ are always on the move looking for a female and cover great distances.’

As we wait while Elias and Juan Carlos scan the hillsides with binoculars searching for a bear, Juan Carlos fills us in on the Spanish brown bear’s mating style. Male bears can scent a female bear from miles away and all usually goes well in the subsequent encounter if she is on heat. Even if she’s recently mated she can still be receptive to mating again within a short period of time (an interesting result of this promiscuous behaviour is that female bears can simultaneously carry cubs who have different fathers). However, if a male bear finds a female bear who has cubs with her, then he is in for a very different reception indeed because he’s a deadly threat rather than attraction and will be aggressively repelled. This is where I get some insight as to why bear numbers are slow to increase and how puzzling nature can be at times; it turns out that a male bear can get a female bear to go on heat by killing her cubs. This is the reason why female bears with cubs don’t leave areas they know. The proximity of known caves, often small but big enough to squeeze cubs into, can save their lives while their mother puts up a defence. Cubs stay with their mother for 18 months, even hibernating through a winter with her before the male cubs wander off to pastures new, while the females remain like their mothers, close to the familiar area they were born in.

In addition to being unlucky enough to find a female with cubs there’s another barrier to the wanderings of an amorous Cantabrian male bear and this one is permanent, lethal and was for a long time insurmountable. This is la autopista Léon-Oviedo; a ribbon of unbroken concrete slicing north to south through the east-west trending Cordillera Cantabrian mountain chain – visibly bisecting the landscape into two parts. FOP scientists discovered that what the autopista had done for the landscape it had also done for the bears; dividing them into two separated groups – one to the west of the autopista and one to the east. Scientists also discovered that since the construction of the autopista not a single bear had made it across to the other side alive. The evidence for this was bear genetics; the east and west bears, it seems, had become two genetically distinct populations. This was not a good situation for the small and critically endangered bear population in general, but it was an extremely grave situation for the smaller of the two sub-groups, the bears on the eastern side. This tiny population was on the brink of being genetically unviable. It was obvious and imperative that the gene pool should be enlarged by getting east and west bears to meet and mate. The question was - how do you get a bear to safely cross a road?

Freeway subways and genetic diversity

Habitat connectivity is another vital element in helping endangered species survive. It allows animals to move, meet and mate with other populations keeping the gene pool varied. FOP needed the bears on either side of the freeway to meet. The only solution was to build passages and tunnels under the freeway for the bears to use. That was the relatively easy part, the difficult part, was getting the bears to use them. Fortunately, the bears’ sweet tooth provided the means of luring them to the tunnels. A network of forests was created to provide cover and facilitate movement leading to plantations of the bear’s favourite food, such as cherry and apple trees, located near the tunnel entrance. Juan Carlos explains the next step. ‘All we needed was one single bear to use the tunnel and cross to the other side because once one bear is safely across another will follow.’ FOP scientists have seen bear paw tracks placed exactly onto those of another bear that has gone before it. This is because the bear has scent glands in its paws that leave a scent trail causing the following bear to place his paws in the previous bear’s tracks. Juan Carlos says that ‘sometime in the early 90s, the first western bear crossed over to the eastern side of the freeway.’ He explains that as tagging and satellite tracking of the bears isn’t possible [a bear died while being tagged] the date is only known from genetic evidence found in bear scat and hair. As a result of this first crossing, some 20 years later, the bear populations on both sides of the freeway are now so mixed that they are genetically indistinguishable one from the other.

Despite Elias and Juan Carlos’ best efforts there is a day when the bears stay out of sight, and Elias is clearly disappointed. That evening, after a traditional Asturian meal, Elias takes us a short distance out of the village, sets up his binoculars and starts to scan the mountain slopes. It is 9.30 pm; its been a long day and we are full of food and sleepy, but Elias is determined to find us a bear before nightfall. Evening thickens. The time spent together has made us friends and ‘experienced’ bear watchers, so we quickly fall into a relaxed and camaraderie silence – waiting. I feel energized standing there in the twilight, not so far from Elias’ village, knowing that tonight, in this quiet valley, villagers will bed down while creatures such as bears, wolves, and wild boar roam the hills around them searching for food or a mate. In the not so distant past, I think, every human on the planet would have slept in similar circumstances. This is a profound realisation; changing the way the landscape effects me – making it feel alive in a deeper sense and giving me a new perspective on my own place in the world. As darkness envelopes the valley, I silently thank those who’s dedication to preservation enables these small pockets of an older and much wilder Europe to still remain. Then I hear Juan Carlos whisper ‘Look – over there!


The author arranged her bear watching trip through - The European Nature Trust who support Fundación Oso Pardo's vital work

Helena and Juan Carlos photo credit - Duncan Grossart