Transboundary challenges – the bear M13

Image: UNECEUnited Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Image: UNECE
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

I’ve talked before about the challenges of transboundary parks  in relation to southern Africa and Yellowstone Park. Wildlife conservation and reintroduction programs  introduced on one side of a shared territorial line can’t always control what happens just across the often invisible lines that we call international or regional borders.

A new case in point is that of the bear reintroduction program that has been working since 1999 in the Trentino region of northern Italy. Between 1999-2002, ten adult bears were captured in Slovenia – which has a healthy bear population – and introduced into the mountain region south of the Swiss border. Over the past decade, these ten individuals have produced around over a dozen bear cubs. Native bears had not been sighted in Switzerland in almost a hundred years. A handful of the Italian cubs, once they had become independent, left Italian territory and wandered into Switzerland. Most of them wandered back into Italy at some point.

Switzerland is a signatory to both the Bern Convention and the Alpine Convention. The  Bern Convention regulates species conservation by imposing restrictions on taking species from the wild and on exploitation. It constitutes a commitment to protect species’ habitats. Particular emphasis is given to endangered and vulnerable species.

The Alpine Convention is an international treaty between the Alpine countries and the EU, aimed at promoting sustainable development in the Alpine area. The aim of this Convention is the long-term protection of the natural ecosystem of the Alps and sustainable development in the area. This aim includes the protection of residents’ economic interests. A guiding principle of the Convention is trans-border cooperation.

Following the culling of bear M13, an offspring of the Trentino bears that wandered into Switzerland in 2011 and then stayed, one of Italy’s largest environmental organizations, the Legambiente has filed formal charges against Switzerland with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg for systematic violation of these international treaties with regards to the bear conservation program – which Switzerland itself agreed to support. Letters have also been sent to the offices of the Bern Convention and the Alpine Convention (Innsbruck) demanding sanctions be placed upon Switzerland for not adhering to strict regulations when it comes to the bear program. “The bear reintroduction program is financed by the European Union, and it is not acceptable for a bear from this program to simply be killed (by unilateral decision),” according to Legambiente spokesperson Antonio Nicolette.

The leadership and communication challenges facing international treaties is well illustrated by the fact that the Swiss Graubünden region – the border region in which M13 was killed by authorities – had to block local attempts to have the entire area officially declared a bear-free zone back in 2007. By default, this goal was achieved with the destruction of M13, but it is probably only a matter of time before another protected bear crosses the border. The culling has received almost universal condemnation in the press.

The goals of the national and international treaties may be clear, but the implementation is faltering at the local and regional level, which is where the bears actually live. And these challenges are shared by many conservation projects around the world.

The Life Ursus Project website.

Spiegel article (2005, in English) on European bear reintroduction programs.

M13 – There will be bear

bearWe had out-of-town visitors with us over the weekend. One of them is a designer/builder, and he brought his two snow-deprived teenagers with him. They did some skiing, and then they used all the snow in our garden to build a 4-person igloo worthy of providing actual shelter. The garden is not the pristine sheet of white it was last week, but we have an igloo. If you let energetic snow-deprived designer/builder families loose in your snow-filled garden, an igloo is practically inevitable.

Apparently, if you have a single bear in areas unused to bears, conflict is inevitable, even if the bear is just being a bear. I was driving home last night when I heard an interview on one of our local English language radio stations. A bear expert from WWF, Joanna Schönenberger, was talking about M13, currently Switzerland’s only bear, having woken up from his winter sleep. Schönenberger commented on the atmosphere of fear being created by local media around the bear. So, I went and looked up an article, and indeed, the words used (at least in the English translation) are meant to instill a sense of panic and fear. An excerpt:

“The notorious brown bear known as M13 has woken up from his winter sleep but his New Year resolutions evidently do not include keeping away from human beings, and his behaviour means he may not be allowed to live to sleep through another. A couple out walking in the eastern canton of Graubünden on Saturday afternoon were alarmed to find the three-year-old bear following them…he then alarmed a 14-year-old girl who saw him standing on the other side of the bridge. She was treated in hospital for shock. The report by Il Grigione Italiano said the measures taken to discourage M13 from approaching human beings had not worked, and that he had “gone too far”. He should be classified as dangerous and be shot, it said.”

As the WWF speaker saw it, there are two levels of how to deal with a bear. One is based on how a bear actually behaves, the other is what kind of bear behavior people are willing to tolerate. Local officials are setting the bar at people’s fearful level of tolerance, not at how bears really behave. If this keeps up, the bear is doomed. There were several suggestions on how to deal with regular, non-aggressive bear behavior – which according to WWF, is what M13 demonstrates. Learn to make loud noises to warn bears away, keep all trash safely stowed, etc. The measures taken in many places around the world where bears are commonplace.

Now, I’m not sure what kind of realistic future a bear population of 1 has, but this seems to be a good example of how local politics and media can lead or doom larger policy.

Update: Just as I was finishing this post, I got the news* that M13 was shot dead. RIP M13. I’m wondering if the Graubünden cantonal offices – the region in which the bear was located – felt they were avoiding both potential bear-human interaction as well as another season of conflict in the media as well as with federal authorities and environmental agencies. From

“The WWF issued a statement saying that it was “deeply disappointed” by the fact that the bear had been killed. “It is clear that the shooting came too soon – it would have been much better to have stepped up and continued with the deterrent measures,” said Joanna Schönenberger, bear expert at the nature protection organisation. Initial feedback on Swiss newspaper websites was overwhelmingly hostile to the shooting.”

The thing about this kind of destruction, whether it’s of a bear or any other species under protection, is that it’s final. For those who saw the bear as a ‘problem’ animal, the problem is now solved.

Feel like complaining about what happened to M13? Send a note to the Graubünden Office of Forestry and Hunting at

*Contrary to what the article states, M13 was not one of a few bears in the country, he was the only bear. Bears do occasionally wander up from Italy. Currently, however, there are no other known bears on Swiss territory.

M13 – Bear with no name

I suspect there’s a reason that the brown bear known as M13, who has been a regular in the Swiss and German news over the last year or so, has remained as nameless as other 00 agents in a James Bond movie: M13’s ending isn’t going to be happy ever after. It’s best if the public doesn’t think of him as Teddy or Brownie or Fuzzy, but just a cold letter-digit-digit specimen. Some call him Yogi, but it hasn’t really stuck.

He’s one of two known free-ranging bears in the country. Both are outfitted with precise tracking devices, and authorities monitor the animals closely. The problem with M13 is, he does not display an acceptable amount of ‘inhibition’ when it comes to humans, traffic, trains, or very much else that could spell his demise. He’s what is officially known as ‘inquisitive’.

He’s knocked power poles into trees, starting fires. He’s been hit by a train but walked away undamaged. He’s climbed barriers and sauntered around in traffic. He killed a farmer’s goat. He robbed a beehive in a school yard aviary. He dug up the corpse of a missing man while foraging, which would seem to be a factor in his favor, but probably won’t help him in the long run. Even if he did go by the name of Inspector Bear for a short while.

When he approaches a populated area, authorities send out a ranger to fire non lethal ammo at him – not to harm him, but to provide negative reinforcement. Humans go boom and make ouch.

It doesn’t seem to be working. This week, M13 broke into a shed near a chalet. Like a drunk and distracted robber, he gorged himself on old potatoes and stale bread before trashing the place, wrecking a generator, a vacuum machine and a water pump before passing out for a day-and-a-half in the shed.

The difference between Switzerland and many other countries is that authorities want the tiny bear population, all that remains after the creatures were hunted to near-extinction, to be able to coexist with humans as a part of the national environmental heritage. So far, success has been slim – M13’s brother was killed in car accident, while another bear called JJ3 was put down for being overly aggressive.

A Spiegel Online interview with Joanna Schoenenberger of the World Wildlife Fund back in April of this year highlights this approach.

SPIEGEL ONLINE:With WWF you carried out a five-year project aimed at making life possible for bears along the Swiss-Austrian-Italian border triangle. There are now bear-resistant trash containers, beehive protection measures and educational hiking trails in the very area where M13 has now been spotted. How would you feel if the bear had to be killed?

Schoenenberger: We should have learned from JJ3. If it’s not possible for a bear to survive there now, it would be a total defeat for me and our culture.

M13 after a tagging session photo: Hunting and Fisheries Authority, Graubünden, Switzerland

Update: M13 was destroyed by forestry officials two days after emerging from hibernation. See here and here.