We have witnessed the recovery of wolf, bear and lynx populations across Europe in the past decades. This followed after intense persecutions, habitat loss and fragmentation of good habitats during the 19th and 20th century, where the populations were at their low point. One of the most widely accepted explanations for the population’s recovery is the decrease in human persecution, not surprisingly. Other factors include the rural land abandonment, forest cover increase, and prey abundance. Recently, researchers looked into other factors that could have played a role: the land cover, human population density as well as the species’ protected status.
Please also read: Large carnivores do not need protected areas
Finding the right spots
In their study, researchers combined data on wolf, bear and lynx occurrences from the past 24 years with land cover and human population density information. This way, the study looked at wether these factors impacted the habitat suitability changes. The researchers conclude that the habitat suitability is correlated with increasing forest cover and decreasing human population density. In other words, when the landscape becomes more forested, and less densely occupied by people, it becomes more favourable for large carnivores. Although this is not a big surprise, the analysis also showed areas where conflict can arise.
There are areas within the known distribution of the large carnivores, where the habitat suitability is decreasing. The researchers conclude that in the Alps, Pyrenees and Northern Balkans the habitat suitability is worsening. Yet, the large carnivore distribution is not as much impacted by this trend as the researchers expected. This finding suggests that there are other factors or variables that also play an important role in the expansion. It seems that the animals are able to adapt to different habitats. Favourable habitat availability is thus not the most important limiting factor.
Thriving in a human-dominated landscape
The conclusion that large carnivores are able to settle in areas where we do not expect them to do so, based on habitat suitability models, is consistent with many examples we witness today. For example, wolf packs have settled right in between cities and in suburban areas where human population density is high. As the study concludes, large carnivores can remarkably well adapt and survive in a landscape where humans are dominating. Just as long as there is sufficient tolerance towards them and policies to ensure their protection. Nevertheless, at local levels there may also be other factors playing an important role, which the researchers not included in this EU-wide analysis.
There are currently less suitable habitats for wolves, bears and lynxes in Europe, compared to 1992. Especially in important conservation areas, including the Alps, Pyrenees and Estonia, forest cover has decreased rapidly. Meanwhile, human population density increased as cities continue to grow and people abandon the rural lands. On the other hand, there are more protected areas nowadays. Yet, the impact of the protected areas on the successful recolonisation remains small. Usually, these protected areas are established in regions with already low human population density. Furthermore, they are often smaller than a what a single individual carnivore requires. As a result, the European Commission recently announced that large carnivore protection is also effective outside protected areas.
Protection status is not as effective
Even though there are European policies in place to protect the large carnivores, such as the Habitats Directive, its impact is limited. Several EU countries have signed the Directive with derogations. Because of these derogations, the protection status of large carnivores is not consistent across Europe. As a result, legal wolf and lynx culling negatively impact the species’ distributions, despite the European efforts to protect them.
So, as the researchers conclude, large carnivore expansion could be a more complicated matter than previously assumed. Not only the habitat suitability limits the distribution. And this has important implications for the conservation and management of the large carnivores on a European scale. People should thus focus on cases where human-carnivore co-existence is a big challenge, to truly understand the conflicts and find sustainable solutions. In priority areas, such as the Alps, one of the solutions is improvement of livestock protection measures to reduce depredation. For example in the LIFEstockProtect project, the European Wilderness Society and 16 other partners focus on training and assisting farmers to implement livestock protection.
Interested to read the full scientific study? Click here: Large carnivore expansion in Europe is associated with human population density and land cover changes