Bears, wolves and even lynx and wolverines are returning to Europe. At one time, the news that these feared hunters were on the way back would have been greeted with alarm, but today the return of apex predators is recognized as an essential step in protecting or restoring ecosystems.
Reports on the success of efforts to reintroduce wolves have been appearing for some time, but now a systematic study published in Science confirms this progress across all surviving large carnivores. The success vindicates the approach Europe has taken to restore populations.
The paper is the product of 76 authors from 54 institutions, the sort of major collaborative effort required to track four species across half a continent. “We show that roughly one-third of mainland Europe hosts at least one large carnivore species, with stable or increasing abundance in most cases in 21st-century records,” the authors report. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were not included in the study.
The animals are not just present in remote wilderness regions, with the majority living in areas inhabited by humans; wolf territory has an average of 37 human inhabitants per square kilometer. Surprising to those raised on fairy stories, humans, wolves and bears have managed to co-exist fairly comfortably.
This contrasts with what the authors call the North American wilderness model, which they say “separates people and nature and that has further been adopted in many Asian, African, and neotropical countries.” The paper points out, “Europe hosts twice as many wolves as the contiguous United States despite being half the size and more than twice as densely populated.”
The paper estimates that 17,000 brown bears (Ursus arctos) now live within the study area, along with more than 12,000 wolves (Canis lupus), 9,000 Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) and 1,250 wolverines (Gulo gulo). In most areas, the populations are rising or stable, although some isolated pockets—such as certain Spanish wolves—are in dangerous decline.
Credit: Chapron et al. Distribution of Europe's four wild large carnivores
The authors attributed the rise in large carnivores to “protective legislation, supportive public opinion, and a variety of practices making coexistence between large carnivores and people possible.” These have had to happen in the face of "emotional, political, and socioeconomic issues that complicate” the reintroduction of species many people are afraid of or hostile toward. The benefits may turn out to be greater than anyone expected.
It is a particularly impressive achievement in the face of factors like climate change, which has slashed populations of reindeer. With wolverines restricted to colder climates, and bears and wolves most common in Scandinavia, a warmer world will make life harder for these large predators.