Saving the Bears of Abruzzo

In Italy, efforts to build a viable population of Marsican brown bears are underway.

Abruzzo is a a little-known region of Italy, just two hours east of Rome. It lies in between the high peaks of three national parks, 10,000 square kilometres of wild, rugged terrain, home to Apennine wolves, golden eagles, wild boar, and many other animals. It is also home to 1.3 million people. And as few as 60 Marsican brown bears.

Mario Cipollone would like to change that. He is the co-founder of Salviamo l’Orso (Save the Bears), and we met recently at a verdant location in Pettorano sul Gizio along the Gizio River, where the organization has a base of operations. From a picnic bench, we could see the Apennines, the sun shining on mountaintops still covered in snow. This is where Marsican brown bears live. “We aim to rewild an area of more than 500,000 hectares,” Cipollone, an outdoorsy type who has been passionate about conservation all his life, told me.

​Marsican bears are a rare subspecies of European brown bears that only live in the Apennines. Photo of a European brown bear in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia by Paul Appleton/Flickr.

A subspecies of European brown bear that only lives in the Apennines, Marsican brown bears like to roam, and adult males need a vast area to breed successfully. It is therefore important that their territory not only remain safe, but that it increases. The problem, Cipollone said, is that outside the national parks, the bears have no legal protection. So he is building a movement of people who care enough about the bears that they can roam beyond the parks, safely. “Salviamo l’Orso will help make people aware of the needs of bears and give them space,” he said.

He established Save the Bears in 2012, with help from Stefano Orlandini, who is currently president of the organization, and others, with the simple goal of broadening the areas where the bears might thrive. At 300 individuals, the Marsican brown bear population could be considered viable. That’s still a long way away, but a healthy population would help the overall region.

Marsican brown bears (Ursus arctos marsicanus) are a keystone species. Without them, this alpine ecosystem tips out of balance. They are true omnivores, eating fruits, roots, fungi, eggs, insects, fish, honey, and carrion. Occasionally they will kill a medium sized animal, like a goat or a sheep, but they are mainly opportunistic eaters. They eat carrion and spread seeds via their faecal matter, which helps the environment.

Save the Bears has a partnership with Rewilding Europe, an organization that works across 10 European landscapes across 12 countries to rewild large areas, including projects to reintroduce European bison, griffon vultures and beavers. Rewilding Europe provides funding to run projects that will improve habitat of keystone species like the Marsican brown bear. It’s not only bears that benefit, of course. Other species in decline—such as freshwater crayfish, Apennine wolves, and griffon vultures—benefit too. As the world continues to warm, and with an extinction crisis upon us, bringing the population of these bears to viable numbers would be a big win.

​Save the Bears volunteers pose with piles of reclaimed barbed wire. The wire fencing in the wild can prevent Marsican brown bears from expanding their territory. Photo courtesy of Save the Bears.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to a free-roaming population of these bears is a classic villain: plain-old barbed wire. Barbed wire fences stretch across much of the bear’s habitat. An estimated 1,100,000 meters still lies across the three national parks here: the Maiella; the Gran Saso; and the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molie. The fencing was put up to protect replanted woodlands in the 1960s and should have been removed when the trees were grown. Now Save the Bears works to get rid of as much as possible. Since 2018, the group has removed 200,000 meters of barbed wire fencing, cutting it down by hand and removing fence posts. “This work is essential to give bears and other wildlife access to these woodlands where they find some of their food,” Cipollone said. The reclaimed wire is melted down and recycled, or re-used by local farmers.

Aside from barbed wire, bears also suffer from a negative image, particularly among farmers, who say bears raid their farms, including beehives and produce. In order to assuage these fears, Save the Bears has volunteers who build electric fences around crops. To date, they have built fences on 360 farms. In the 1980s bears were killed by hunters, as a form of protest against conservation policies of the Abruzzo national parks. Cipollone said that today bears are rarely poisoned or poached, but that doesn’t mean they are out of the woods. Locals can still get cranky. “People often don’t love nature like we do,” Cipollone said. “Sometimes they think we are a bunch of hippies.”

Still, the perception of the Marsican brown bears is shifting. “They are now the symbol of Abruzzo, kind of a tourist superstar,” Cipollone said. You can see this in the branding of the national parks: in the logo of the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park, for example. The visitor centers at Pizzone and Villavallelonga are dedicated specifically to the bear. The subspecies is less aggressive than other brown bears, Cipollone said. In fact, there are no recorded casualties from bear attacks here (though Cipollone said caution around them remains prudent). “These bears know how to live alongside humans,” he said.

Sabatino Belmaggio, head of the Forest and Parks Service for the Region of Abruzzo, told me that money is tight for managing these wild spaces. The budget for the whole Region of Abruzzo is 7 billion euros, of which only about 4 million euros is spent on nature conservation. Around half of that goes to staff salaries and administration, and another 900,000 euros is allocated for paying compensation for damage done to crops by wild boars. That leaves little left over for parks and nature reserves. “There are no interventions taking place,” Belmaggio said. “The main way of conservation is protection.”

This means that the Region doesn’t actively contribute to increasing biodiversity, sequestering carbon, or removing dangers to protected animals. Sirente Velino Regional Park saw 6,000 hectares of its total area removed recently, by request of locals, particularly hunters. Still, work is done to protect bears. Hunting clubs know there is no season for bears, and there are high fines for poaching.

Abruzzo ought to be a great place for bears. It has the largest number of national parks and protected areas in Italy, covering more than a third of the region. The landscape of Abruzzo has a wildness that is rare in the country. Maiella National Park is full of caves where hermits once lived, an area of steep valleys covered in low-growing trees like birch, oak, and olive. The flora is exquisite, with rare flowers like the Apennine edelweiss, Apennine gentian, and Alpine aster, and with glacial relics like dryad on the high peaks. Though a dearth of birdsong is notable, as many songbirds are illegally hunted, a golden eagle or peregrine falcon occasionally glides over the valleys.

Cipollone and Save the Bears, which has 300 members and scores of international volunteers, continue to seek ways to expand habitat for bears. They have begun a project to re-establish food resources for bears, strategically planting currents, buckthorn, and cherries to lure bears away from dangerous road crossings and into safe territory.

“Marsican brown bears are now finding the right conditions to reclaim lands they once occupied,” Cipollone said. “It is rare that you see a wild bear, but knowing they are here and in increasing numbers is enough for me to keep going. Come and visit us or even better volunteer with us. The Abruzzo Region is the wildest and most nature-rich region of Italy.”

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