Recently, I was very impressed by the film “How Wolves Change Rivers” about the reintroduction of wolves to the Yellowstone National Park and how their return changed the environment. In this context I was reminded of brown bears, large carnivores that originally occurred in my home country, Germany.
Once, brown bears occurred in forests all over Europe. At the top of the food chain, together with wolves and lynx, they influenced the structure and functioning of animal communities and ecosystems; for instance, they regulated populations of herbivores. However, because bears were considered to compete with humans for food and to be dangerous, they were exterminated in Germany in the 19th century.
In May 2006, a young male brown bear from a reintroduced population in North Italy was sighted in Bavaria, a state in South Germany. Initially, excitement was great as he was the first wild-living brown bear in Germany for over 170 years. The media celebrated the brown bear and he was even given a name: Bruno. However, within only four weeks the attitude towards Bruno had changed as he began to hunt livestock and pets. Apparently surprised by the bear´s behaviour, Bruno was then referred to as the “problem-bear”, by the former Bavarian minister-president Edmund Stoiber. The Bavarian government was not sure how to act. Bruno was thought to be dangerous for the densely populated Germany because he was seen roaming and foraging near settlements. Should he be transferred to a nature reserve or should he be killed? At that time no management plan for these large carnivores existed. Nevertheless, Bruno still conquered the hearts of the public.
However, the story had a sad ending and still leaves me angry and ashamed!
In June 2006 the Bavarian government ordered that the bear, which was strictly protected by the German Federal Nature Conservation Act at that time, had to be captured or shot. Unable to catch him and work out the “problem”, Bruno was killed on 26 June 2006 by an unknown hunter.
Unfortunately, this animal was unable to recognize country borders. It crossed into a country that was completely unprepared for the arrival of a large carnivore and failed miserably in implementing management strategies. Justifiably, Germany was heavily criticized worldwide. A quote from US-diplomats summed up public sentiment by saying: “Perhaps the greatest insight from the whole Bruno affair might be that despite the veneer of “greenness” extolled by German society, modern Germany in fact coexists uneasily with untamed nature”.
After all, my question still remains: Has Germany learned from this event and is it now prepared for the return of brown bears? I hope so, but unfortunately I do not believe it. At least the Bavarian government worked out a management plan in 2007 to handle these animals prospectively.
However, if another bear ever again migrates to our forests I will say: “Welcome!”