Italy: No end to the dispute over bears in Trentino

Hardly anyone knows the forests in Trentino as well as Matteo Zeni.

Italy: No end to the dispute over bears in Trentino

Hardly anyone knows the forests in Trentino as well as Matteo Zeni. When the forester makes his rounds through the mountainous area west of the provincial capital of Trento in northern Italy, he knows exactly which corner, in which ravine or in which cave bears can be. Trentino is considered the bear region of Italy. Zeni talks about his love and fascination for the brown giants, but also about unpleasant encounters with them, which always ended lightly.

There was, for example, the encounter with two bears during the mating season in early summer. The bear couple had retreated behind a small hill and were surprised by Zeni. In fright, the male stood up and ran towards him. “In such moments you have to stay calm and stand still,” says Zeni. After a few moments, the bear calmed down and turned away. Later - from a safe distance - Zeni called into the forest: "scusate!" - sorry for disturbing you.

Brown bears have a long history in the province

Brown bears have a long history in Trentino. Their fate in the province in northern Italy, which is popular with hikers and vacationers, was actually sealed some time ago. The brown bear was almost extinct, but at the end of the 1990s ten bears from Slovenia were resettled there as part of the “Life Ursus” project.

There are now around 100 adult bears there, as the director of the wildlife service, Alessandro Brugnoli, said in an interview with the German Press Agency. It is difficult to determine an exact number because the animals like to migrate. But there are far too many. And the number of bears continues to grow every year, says Brugnoli. Most of them stay west of the Adige Valley. Brave - mostly male - animals rarely dare to cross the Etsch and the railway tracks as well as under the motorway to the east.

Most encounters are peaceful

There are always unwanted encounters between people and bears in the forests of Trentino. Rarely does anything happen, but incidents have occurred. According to the wildlife service, eight bear attacks have been recorded in Trentino since 2014. These caused excitement among the population. Calls for tougher measures to control the bear population grew louder.

Almost a year ago the mood completely changed. In April last year, the bear JJ4, called Gaia, attacked and killed a 26-year-old jogger near Caldes in Val di Sole. He had come across her and her bear cubs in the forest. The bear was tracked down and caught by the forestry corps in a night-and-dagger operation. The young jogger from Trentino was the first so-called bear death in Italy. The case represents a turning point in Trentino, says Brugnoli. "There is a before and after."

Emotional debate about the bears

Since then, the already emotional debate about the bears in Trentino has escalated further. Provincial President Maurizio Fugatti ordered the killing of JJ4. To this day, animal rights activists and the province are fighting in court over the "problem bear" who is in an animal care center. The tone has become harsher: Fugatti and other provincial representatives are now being threatened - sometimes with death. Forestry and wildlife service employees receive threatening calls on their personal phones and become victims of so-called mail bombings.

Provincial President Fugatti has always been able to order individual killings of "problem bears" through bureaucratic hurdles. Now there is to be a controversial law that will allow up to eight bears to be killed in Trentino per year. The right-wing provincial government said this would slow the increase in the bear population and ensure the safety of people. The Trentino state parliament will make a final decision on Monday (March 4th). Fugatti has a majority in the Consiglio, so passage is considered certain.

Provincial president decides fate of problem bears

It is then solely the responsibility of the provincial president to release problematic animals for shooting. Of the maximum eight per year, there may only be two adult females, two adult males and four young animals. This maximum quota is intended to create facts. It should apply for the years 2024 and 2025 - a new one should be set for 2026.

Animal rights activists have already announced resistance to the new law. In fact, there are other methods to protect against bears, such as "anti-bear spray", i.e. high-dose pepper spray. And so that bears are not attracted to garbage, bear-proof garbage cans are increasingly being installed. They are firmly anchored in the ground and can only be opened at the push of a button. Because the bears have learned to knock over barrels and loot them.

Information campaign for everyone

However, according to Brugnoli, the most sustainable solution would be an information campaign. Not only for Trentino residents, but also for hikers and holidaymakers who come to Trentino in droves every year. It is beneficial for everyone to know how to assess bears in an emergency.

Matteo Zeni and his colleagues from the forestry corps are always caught between two chairs in the bear dispute. In some cases they do too much for the bears, in others they do too little against them. The aim of the authorities' work is to make the coexistence of humans and bears as peaceful as possible and to create a situation in which neither one is harmed. It remains to be seen whether the new law will advance coexistence - or deepen the gap in the emotional debate.

Information about bears in Trentino (Italian) Bill (Italian)