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Trends in Large Carnivores in Europe

To the Edge of Extinction

Bears, wolves and Eurasian lynx were once widespread across most of the European continent. However, intense persecution, prey extermination and habitat conversion led to their near extermination in the nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries (Breitenmoser 1998; Linnell et al. 2009, 2010). As a result of the eradication efforts, all carnivore populations experienced their smallest population sizes and range contraction during early to mid-twentieth century. The declines were particularly extreme in western, central and northern Europe. Wolves were practically exterminated and relict lynx and bear populations only persisted in parts of Sweden and Finland. In southern Europe, precariously small bear populations persisted in the Cantabrian Mountains, the Pyrenees, the Alps and central Italy. Wolves persisted in parts of the Iberian Peninsula and central Italy. In eastern and south-eastern Europe all species persisted to some extent in the Carpathian and Balkan mountains, but populations were generally very much reduced in both range and density.

Multiple Causes of Recovery

From this nadir, a number of factors have interacted to create the conditions for a continental wide recovery of the species. Many carnivore populations were protected by national and European legislations (Bern Convention of 1982, Habitats Directive of 1992) following significant changes in public opinion towards wildlife conservation, which occurred in many countries around this time. However, it is also interesting to note that much of the early recovery in northern and Eastern Europe occurred within hunting management frameworks, often while the carnivores were being harvested (Swenson et al. 1994). Much of this recovery was long before the ideals of conservation biology had been formulated. By this period there had also been a dramatic recovery of European wild herbivore populations, which had experienced a similar fate as the large carnivores during the nineteenth century. Their recovery during the early and mid-twentieth century had been greatly aided by hunting motivated translocations and the introduction of improved hunting legislation that aimed to manage ungulates for sustainable harvest (Linnell and Zachos 2011). In addition, European forest cover had begun to recover from earlier deforestation, both as a result of forest policies and due to reduced human pressure on the land following large-scale rural—urban migration. This reduced pressure led to both an increase in habitat for predators and prey, and led to a lessening of the human persecution pressure on the carnivores (see Chap. 1). Thus, many positive factors coincided to create a positive ecological and legislative environment for large carnivores to recover, although there was much regional variation in the timing and magnitude of the different processes.

Most of the recovery has been natural. Lynx have naturally recolonized much of Fennoscandia, even expanding into northern areas from where they were historically absent (Linnell et al. 2010). Wolves have naturally recolonized Scandinavia, Finland, France, Switzerland and Germany as well as expanding through much larger areas of Italy, Portugal and Spain (Kaczensky et al. 2013). Dispersing wolves are now appearing in areas like Denmark, the Netherlands, and Austria. Fennoscandian and south-eastern European bear populations have also expanded naturally, although bear expansion is slowed by the intrinsic low rates of female dispersal. Active assistance through reintroduction has played only a minor part in the process. Eurasian lynx were successfully reintroduced to the western Alps, the Jura and Vosges mountains, north-eastern Switzerland, central Germany and central Poland (Linnell et al. 2009). The translocation of bears has successfully taken place in the Italian Alps and, less successfully, in the Pyrenees and in central Austria (Clark et al. 2002). There have been no reintroductions of wolves, although a few individuals have been translocated within Sweden in recent years as part of a genetic reinforcement program.

 
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