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Reintroduced bears flourish in Italy, but feed on livestock

The reintroduction of brown bears to Italy's Dolomite Mountains is one of Europe's greatest conservation successes, but locals with dead livestock are not happy.

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What to do about the bears?

What to do with the bears has become a hot political topic in the Trentino region, with opposing groups of legislators arguing for and against its merits.

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Most vehement in their opposition are members of the Northern League, a center-right party which was allied with Silvio Berlusconi at the national level until he resigned from his third stint as prime minister late last year.

The party’s regional representatives have arranged a number of anti-bear stunts, including a banquet at which guests were served bear goulash made from actual bears – a provocation that created an uproar among conservationists. 

Maurizio Fugatti, a member of the Northern League, said that enthusiasm for the Life Ursus project had “evaporated” because it had “put at risk the safety of citizens.”

A recent survey by the local government showed that support for reintroducing the species into Trentino was at 30 percent – down from 70 percent in 2003.

The Life Ursus project is funded by the European Union and managed by the local authorities in Trentino, which has an autonomous status reflecting its history as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until the end of the World War I, when it was handed to Italy.

Not a single bear killing in Italy

Claudio Griffo, a forestry and fauna officer from the province, said fears of bears attacking humans were unfounded.

In 150 years of data, there was not a single documented case of a bear killing a person in Italy, he says.

“At the international level this reintroduction project is considered a huge success. But we acknowledge that for it to continue to work, we need to have people’s support on the ground," Mr. Griffo says.

Landowners can obtain funding to erect electric fences around their livestock and are paid compensation in the event of animals being killed by bears.

The longterm vision – which is now under threat – is that the bears of Trentino will spread into the neighboring regions of South Tyrol, Lombardy, and the Veneto, and eventually link up with a large population in Slovenia. 

The debate in the Dolomites is likely to unfold in other parts of Europe, as big animals make a comeback after centuries of trapping, shooting, and poisoning. Wolves, lynx, wild boar, and large birds of prey such as vultures and eagles are rebounding, aided by hunting bans, reintroduction programs, and rural depopulation, which has allowed large tracts of farmland to revert to their natural state.

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