Saving the Large Carnivores

Europe shows how people and large predators can co-exist.

Posted Dec 28, 2014

Preservation of large carnivores is one of the greatest conservation challenges facing the world today.   Saving them would indicate a willingness to share the planet and its resources with another large predator, something most humans have seemed unwilling or unable to do.

In fact, the most common models for living with large carnivores involve separating them from people either by confining them to protected areas whose boundaries are maintained artificially by relocating or killing wanderers or by constructing actual barriers, like fences.   Neither approach has been entirely successful, not least because the species involved have refused to recognize the prescribed boundaries.  More important, human population growth and the subsequent lust for land and resources show no signs of abating, leaving little for non-human predators.

That “separation model” grows out of the American habit, which lies at the root of the preservation movement of the 19th century and of  the environmental movement of the late 20th century of cleaving humans from nature.  It assumes that people and large carnivores cannot get along; moreover, the argument carries over to the more general question of whether humans should in the name of ‘biodiversity’ or some other overarching principle seek to preserve stretches of land from human activity or should certain human uses be allowed.

A study published in the December 19, 2014 issue of the journal Science, titled “Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscapes,” represents a collaborative effort by a  pan-European group of wildlife biologists to survey the status of Europe’s four largest carnivores—brown  bears, lynx, wolverines, and wolves. [The abstract is here; paywall.] The scientists come from every country with at least one population of large predator.  (Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus did not participate in the study.)

With a continental population density more than double that of the contiguous United States and a dearth of large protected areas, European conservationists had little choice other than seek accommodation of people to predators if they hoped to restore species to anything approaching their historic ranges. Thus, while America has been consumed by wolf wars that conjure 19th Century campaigns to destroy the indigenous people and wildlife of the West, Europe has focused on a “co-existence model”—using legislation, public policy and education to generate support, while deploying new products, like electric fences, and reviving or re-enforcing traditional methods of livestock husbandry, like shepherds and livestock guard dogs, in an attempt to minimize interspecies conflict.

The results, says the pan-European group of wildlife biologists and ecologists, show that populations of the four largest carnivores in Europe are either stable or expanding across the continent.  Every nation in mainland Europe, except Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg hosts at least one resident population of large predator, the researchers report.

“Overall, Europe hosts several large and stable populations on the order of thousands of individuals, many medium sized and increasing populations that number in the hundreds of individuals, and a few small and declining populations with a few tens of individuals,”.writes Guillamme Chapron, lead author for the group and an ecologist, at Grimsö Wildlife Research Station, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

“We believe that the alternative view to the coexistence model (i.e., the separation model), which argues that the largest predators can only survive in protected areas or wilderness, is a consequence of former policy goals to exterminate these species,” Chapron says.  “However, our results underline that if the separation model had been applied in Europe, there would hardly be any large carnivore populations at all, because most European protected areas are too small to host even a few large carnivore reproductive units.”

It certainly looks like Europe is doing a far better job managing its large carnivores than the USA, home of the Endangered Species Act.  It has 9000 lynx spread across eleven populations in twenty-three countries; 17,000 brown bears in ten populations in twenty-two countries; 1,250 wolverines in two populations in what they call Fennoscandia; and, 12,000 wolves in ten populations in twenty-eight countries.  Europe has more than twice as many wolves (12,000 to 5,500) as the U.S. and more than 10 times as many brown bears as grizzly bears (17,000 to 1,400).  Lynx and wolverine are not protected in the U.S., and their populations are substantially below historic levels.

Even in Europe, these species have different tolerances for human activities and thus different spatial needs, but in each case, they are living and reproducing in closer proximity to larger numbers of humans than their counterparts in the U.S.  Not surprisingly, wolves show a substantially better ability to tolerate rather high human densities—up to 97 people per square kilometer, also the general European population density—than any of the other species. 

Chapron and his colleagues give a nod toward black bears and mountain lions in the US who are growing in number and increasingly found in human-dominated landscapes, but they quickly turn their attention back to Europe.  I would be interested in  seeing explanations for the booming black bear population and the rising number of cougars in the face of, or perhaps, because of continued human population growth at the urban/wildlands interface

This valuable study should encourage investigation of the transnational agreements, treaties, and legislation that have allowed protections to be provided across Europe.  Public support has remained relatively strong, the scientists report gratefully, while acknowledging that it is subject to shifting political tides. The  movement of people to cities that began following World War II has continued to change land use in Europe, creating a mosaic of current and abandoned agricultural lands that have allowed wild ungulates on which the carnivores feed to flourish.

As they have demonstrated time and again, large carnivores will not stay within human defined safe zones.  We need to learn to share the land and its bounty with them, to live with them, or we will lose them—and with them a considerable part of what makes us human.