The Marsican brown bear (Ursus arctos marsicanus) is mentioned in the enclosures II and IV Of the EEC Habitat Directive 92/43/ as a species of priority community importance, therefore worth of a strict protection on the whole national territory. The Apennines subspecies is made up of a single population which lives in the Central Apennines, Ursus arctos marsicanus, that has been classified according to the category of threats by the IUCN as “EN = endangered” which means “threatened with extinction”.
As widely acknowledged in literature, the main risk factors to the brown bear in Europe and particularly in the Central Apennines are the man-caused mortality, the loss of suitable habitat, the disturbance in crucial areas such as the wintering and feeding areas in critical periods. Besides, regarding the small-sized population of Marsican brown bears, probably far under the minimum vital population and then with a very low variability in its genetic pool along with a precarious sanitary condition, is another serious risk factor. It has been also highlighted as the effects of infrastructures and the presence of different human activities negatively influence the ecology of this species and its conservation.
- Anthropic causes (poaching, toxic substances, road accidents)
- Habitat fragmentation
- Genetic variability and sanitary condition
- Interaction with cattle
- Infrastructures, anthropic activities and habitat trasformation
- Scarce awareness and administrative bureaucracy
Anthropic causes (poaching, toxic substances, road accident)
One of the major causes of Marsican brown bear death is ascribable to human activities: in particular to direct or indirect poaching (addressed to other species, such as the wild boar) or to possible “mistakes” during hunting beats, generally to wild boar as it happened between 1977 and 1986 (15 bears killed) and between 1991 and 2000 (19 bears killed).
Also the use of poison baits in the truffle gathering areas especially in the marginal areas of the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise such as Frusinate and Val Roveto (Roveto Valley) is an important cause of death. Very often this activity is carried out in illegal conditions or scarce control. As well, toxic substances are often used in the “clearance” of large carnivores such as wolf and bear. The death of Bernardo the bear and its family in 2007 is a tragic example, when the carcass of a horn was filled with a potent insecticide and used as a bait.
The road accidents, after some crashes with trains happened in 80s, have become again actual for the death of a female bear on a straight stretch of the road SS 83 “Marsicana” right out of Pescasseroli in May 2011. In that case, fortunately three cubs survived. These events are of topical interest as it is unfortunately shown by the death of some bears in Trentino in 2012.
Also negligence may turn dangerous for the destiny of bears. Two female bears paid for it in Collelongo in June 2010. It seems that they accidentally fell down and drowned in a non-fenced in rain water reservoir.
The vulnerability of an area is directly influenced by the habitat fragmentation whose effects concern both the biotic and abiotic components of the ecosystem. The fragmentation of natural environments is currently considered one of the principal anthropic threats to biodiversity. Besides, it has been proved how, at level of species, such a process represents one of the cause of the current high global extinction rate.
In particular, the edge effect leads, in contact and adjoining areas, a transformation of the plant structure, microclimate and ground cover that cause on their part direct, indirect and species-specific distribution and abundance of animal and plant diversity.
One of the main risk factors for the Marsican brown bear is given by the disturbance and stress situations from which the plantigrade suffers.
Opening new roads, for example, always corresponds to an increase of human frequentation in the areas reached by the new infrastructures; in practice the disturbance of fauna is not only related to the road site stage, but, on the contrary, is related to the increase of anthropic presence in the long – very long period. In fact, the existence of dirt roads corresponds to an intense frequentation of that area by people that move along them especially by motorized means: tourists, bikers, quad-bikers, mushroom searchers, dog trainers, hunters, farmers.
Also the disturbance made by a wood cutting by the areas wherein bear dens are situated, especially during the winter sleep (as ascertained in the past), may cause a big stress to bears.
The disturbance by the direct presence of man in the areas wherein the bear lives is not less serious: hunters (and packs of dogs), wood or mushroom searchers, curious people, naturalist photographer or simple hikers who sometimes find themselves in situations or areas vulnerable for the plantigrade (mating, hibernation, feeding at rhamnus thickets). It is proved that in condition of disturbance, stress in bears reduces their feeding activities.
Genetic variability and sanitary condition
A critical aspect for the Marsican brown bear is the declined efficiency of the immune defences because of the reduced genetic variability. In fact the insurgence of a sanitary problem, in a population already dramatically reduced under a numerical view point could generate very serious problems to the conservation of bear population.
In the last years (2008 and 2012), because of pathogen agents probably related to interaction with cattle, two individuals, which lived on the massif of Duchessa – Velino – Sirente, out of the brown bear core area, died. It has been ascertained that at least 80% of pathologies considered important to bears come from cattle or stray dogs.
In particular four important diseases were recently noticed within this population: brucellosis, distemper, parvovirus and infective canine hepatitis, all connected to domestic animals.
Also the epidemic of tuberculosis discovered last summer in Gioia dei Marsi in a herd of bovines contributes to increase the seriousness of the sanitary situation.
For the not yet well defined pathology called “dermatitis” and found in early 90s, which causes ulcerous lesions on the head, the experts agree that it seems not to undermine the general health condition of the bear.
Interaction with cattle
Another risk factor for the bear is the problem of over pasturing and interaction with cattle, species coming from outer regions.
Because of a problem of direct disturbance and excessive exploitation of food resources (often bovines are seen feeding on rhamnus shrubs instead of bears), it is essential that some critical areas, first of all the pastures rented by the Park Authority, are effectively precluded to cattle.
In addition to this, there is the concern about the sanitary condition of cattle.
Infrastructures, anthropic activities and habitat transformations
The habitat transformation caused by the installation of a large infrastructure or from the starting up of a strong anthropic activity cause a decline of the habitat quality and are extremely disadvantageous to the bear: a prior suitable habitat turns into a non-suitable one and the total extension of available suitable habitats declines.
Concerning this, the habitat suitability analysis by Falcucci et al (2008) reveals a very important aspect of the habitat conservation. This study concerns the area of the historical distribution of this species in Central Apennines, wherein the authors examine the transformation of mountainous habitat on a landscape scale from 60s to 2000. On this basis they make a suitability forecast to 2020; these transformations, due to mountain depopulation and mountainous economy decline (with a dramatic decline of sheep-farming, agriculture and intensive forest exploitation), have led to an expansion of bear suitable habitats; such expansion will continue in the next 20 years unless some unpredictable modifications come up and alter deeply and irreversibly those habitats turning them into non-suitable ones. Among those modifications the authors indicate the creation of ski lifts, the opening of roads and the installation of broad wind farms. Also the opening of quarries, deforestation and installation of large PV systems can transform the habitat irreversibly.
All these factors result in an overall reduction of physical space and food resources available to the bear.
Lack of awareness and administrative bureaucracy
The lack of communication related to the conservation strategies of the Marsican brown bear, that are not disclosed consistently, frequently and with clear news from the institutions and organizations in charge of the bear protection, lead to a lack of awareness in the public opinion and local population in the areas where the bear lives.
In addition, although in 2006 PATOM (Plan of Action for the Protection of the Marsican Bear) was ratified, frequently there is a lack of coordination between the various government departments and public bodies on the measures to be taken in defense of the plantigrade.
This often turns into a condition of strong operational inactivity, in a context of administrative bureaucracy, all to the detriment of the Marsican bear.
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