Claudio Groff, European Brown Bear Expert Team, IUCN Bear Specialist Group

The small, isolated population of brown bears in the Trentino region of the Italian Alps lost a breeding female when the decision was made to remove her after her second attack on a person. This population had been augmented by a reintroduction in 1999–2002, after which it grew rapidly, then leveled off at 49-66 (Groff et al. 2017). Changes in population size have been monitored through non-stop genetic sampling since 2002. Escalating conflicts were handled via a 24-hour hotline, emergency action team, concerted efforts to reduce attractants, and compensation for damages. However, most concerning to the public have been some recent bluff charges, and 2 recent attacks.

The bear involved in these attacks was genetically identified as KJ2. In both cases (2015 and 2017) she was with cubs, and in both cases seriously injured men walking alone in the forest with a dog, not far from the city of Trento (100,000 inhabitants). At the time of the second attack (July 22, 2017) she was 15.5 years old and with her fifth litter (2 cubs).

Following that attack, the President of the Province issued an order to remove the bear. It was recognized that the bear’s behaviour was not abnormal –– it was a defensive attack to protect her cubs, and likely provoked by the dog. Nevertheless, the order was motivated by a concern for human safety as well as to appease public apprehension and possible negative reactions, especially given that the same bear had attacked 2 people in 2 years.

The rugged habitat where bear KJ2 attacked a person, and eventually had to be tracked down and killed. City of Trento is in the background. Photo credit: C. Groff

The rugged habitat where bear KJ2 attacked a person, and eventually had to be tracked down and killed. City of Trento is in the background. Photo credit: C. Groff

A plan was developed to capture, collar, and release the bear, conduct genetic tests to confirm identity, and then once doing so, track it down and remove it. Against some public pressure, the decision was made to kill it rather than take it into captivity.

The first bear captured and collared, a female with 2 cubs, turned out not to be KJ2. On August 1 another female with 2 cubs was captured and collared; a couple of days later this bear was confirmed as the right one. Attempts to track down and kill this bear were initiated immediately.

The plan, though, was more difficult to implement than thought due to the shyness of the bear and the rough terrain. During 9 days of very intensive monitoring and patrolling of the area, which was full of tourists at that time, the bear could not be approached close enough to shoot. Finally, on the evening of August 12 she was shot dead with a single shot.

The 2 cubs (7 months old) were left in the wild, considering them to have a good chance to survive on their own, based on a literature review and previous cases of orphaning in Trentino (3 of 3 survived).

The shooting raised considerable discussion in the media and on the web. For the first time ever in Italy a bear was legally shot. Would this become a policy for all future attacks? The Bear Specialist Group was asked to weigh in on the situation, and submitted a letter in support of the actions taken.

“In certain circumstances killing the offending bear, while potentially distasteful, may be in the best interest of the population as a whole. The removal of a targeted ‘problem’ animal allows the public to view the conflict as under control. While a defensive attack on a person (e.g., mother defending cubs, as in this case) is typically not grounds for removal of a bear in many jurisdictions, management agencies must balance the worth of the bear to the viability of the population versus the trust and tolerance of the public gained by its removal. As we understand, this bear had been involved in previous bluff charges toward people when defending her cubs –– a normal maternal behavior. However, when she crossed the line and actually attacked, she undermined public confidence that people could safely share this habitat with bears; keeping a bear with such a history could impede conservation efforts not only in Italy but for other small populations in Europe, as it would prompt distrust in management agencies.”

Additionally, the BSG recommended that hikers carry bear spray, which has proven to be very effective at preventing unwanted consequences in close encounters with bears in North America. However, this product is still forbidden in Italy and in several other European countries.

The attacks led to a significant loss of pubic support that had been hard-won over the past 20 years. Poaching was already on the increase, so with growing discontent over conflicts with bears, the removal of this single bear was deemed a necessary action demonstrating that conservation is not a trade-off with public safety. We have to keep in mind that possibly the most important aspect of any bear management program is to nurture public support.

We will continue to emphasize modifications of human behaviours to help avoid such conflicts with bears. We will also employ aversive conditioning, including bear dogs, to modify bear behaviours. But as a last choice, we may someday again have to remove a bear that is viewed by the public as threatening their safety.

Literature Cited

Groff, C., N. Bragalanti, and L. Pedrotti. 2017. Brown bear population in the Central Alps (Trentino, Italy) has stabilized. International Bear News 26(2): 14.

Claudio Groff

Member: European Brown Bear Expert Team, IUCN Bear Specialist Group
Provincia Autonoma di Trento – Servizio Foreste e Fauna
Settore Grandi carnivori
Trento, Italy
Email: claudio.groff@provincia.tn.it

Originally published in International Bear News 2017 Fall Vol. 26 No. 3 on pages 22-23