Brown bears in Spain: From a rare sight to a tourist attraction

The population of the ‘Ursus arctos’ has risen steadily in the past 30 years, with thousands of visitors now coming to see the animal. But not everyone is happy about its resurgence

Animal watchers at Somiedo Natural Park (Asturias). Video: A pair of wolves cross paths with a mother bear and her cubs.Photo: VÍCTOR SAINZ | ALFONSO POLVORINOS
Esther Sánchez

Armed with tripods, telescopes, binoculars, cellphones and cameras, around 30 people gather in a wet field in Gúa in Spain’s northwestern Asturias region. At this observatory in Somiedo Natural Park, everyone is hoping to catch a glimpse of the brown bear (Ursus arctos) in the wild. The protected space, which spans 290 square kilometers, is home to one-third of the 324 brown bears that live in the Cantabrian mountains, considered one of the best spots to see the animal – another population of 64 bears is located in the Pyrenees.

Waking up at dawn is worth the effort: while one bear eats casually hazelnuts, 300 meters from the group, on another nearby slope, a female bear comes and goes, with two cubs close to her side. Then the climax comes: a pair of wolves interrupts the scene – a near unheard-of event – and the mother chases them off when one gets within just meters of her. The animal watchers are stunned. “I still have goosebumps!” “It’s incredible to see bears interacting with wolves,” they say, smiling.

There were bears, but seeing them was unthinkable, and you couldn’t imagine that they were going to attract so many people
Herminio Cano, owner of Miño restaurant

Such a scene would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. In 1993 and 1994, the bear population in Spain plummeted to between 50 and 60. Since then, the number of female brown bears with cubs has grown 10% a year. When numbers were in decline, Somiedo Natural Park remained a stronghold for the bears. Now it is an important tourist attraction, with 40,000 people visiting the park last year, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Juan Díaz, who has been working with the Asturian government’s Bear Patrol for 25 years, sums up the current situation: “In the last decade, the growth has been spectacular. Before you needed to do 10 observations to see one species, and now you see eight.”

But not everyone is happy about the resurgence of the brown bear, which is still endangered. Some locals in the area complain that the animals damage their orchards and apiaries. There are also concerns about whether the tourism boom is harmful to conservation efforts. Biologist Jorge Jaúregui, from the tourist guide company Somiedo Experience, which specializes in bear observation, explains: “If a mother bear with cubs is hassled, she could leave this space that she has chosen because she felt safe, and if in these movements, a male bear appears, it could kill the cubs so that the female enters in heat again.”

But while the population has grown, it is not common to come into contact with bears as they avoid humans. There have, however, been some cases. This summer, a woman was seriously injured after crossing paths with a brown bear in Cangas de Narcea. And not long ago, Díaz also encountered a bear: the animal was moving toward him with its head down and didn’t see the patrol officer. “When it was within 30 meters I decided to grab its attention with a ‘hey!’ but without yelling so as to not scare it,” he says. It was enough to make the bear turn around. As for the bears that approach villages for food, lured in by garbage, fruit and bee hives, youngsters typically try to scare them off with firecrackers, and if that doesn’t work, with 12-caliber rubber bullets. “It doesn’t hurt them,” Díaz explains.

There is no set distance for how far away one must be to observe wild animals, but 35% of Somiedo Natural Park is only open to farmers. The 10 observation lookouts, such as the one at Gúa and La Peral, have been set up to “avoid upsetting the fauna, the dangers of people, and, at the same time, the nuisance of parked cars on the roads,” explains Belarmino Fernández, the mayor of the municipality Someido, which is home to 1,200 residents across 38 parishes, of which Pola de Somiedo is the capital. According to Luis Fernando Alonso, the director of Somiedo Natural Park, some spaces in the park are also closed if a bear decides to leave the restricted area, as happened last year in a climbing zone.

International visitors have also been coming to Somiedo Natural Park for years, attracted by its great reputation. “Twenty years ago we would walk kilometers to see [the bears], now that’s changed,” says Karl Seynse, who works for an ecotourism company in Belgium and is in Pola de Somiedo with six tourists. Phillipe Wyckaert, one of the members of the group, says the advantage of Somiedo Natural Park is that it allows visitors to watch bears “without any human interaction, it’s completely natural.” “Perhaps in other countries such as Finland and Slovenia, you can see them closer. But you have to wait in a hiding spot because the wood is more closed, and they put out food so that they will approach,” he adds. The group is seated at an outdoor table of Miño restaurant, which is owned by Herminio Cano, who has also witnessed the transformation of the area. “There were bears, but seeing them was unthinkable, and you couldn’t imagine that they were going to attract so many people,” he says.

A brown bear in Somiedo Nature Park (Asturias).
A brown bear in Somiedo Nature Park (Asturias).Victor Sainz

According to Marcos Simón, from the Brown Bear Foundation (FOP) in Somiedo, “there should not be problems with visitors,” if tourism is “regulated and controlled in specific observation areas.”

The end of summer and the beginning of the fall is a good time to see bears as the animals look to collect food – hazelnuts, apples, acorns, chestnuts and beech nuts – for the winter. There is also a lot of activity in spring, when female bears leave their shelters with their cubs and male bears enter in heat, and eat up all herbaceous plants. At the end of June and July, they add wild cherries to their diet. As well as other cherries…

Complaints from locals

“They didn’t leave a single cherry here,” complains José Manuel Menéndez in Las Viñas, a small mountain village that is reached by a steep, narrow road. One bear, which has become “like another neighbor,” has even started working its way through Menéndez’s fig trees. “I saw one two days ago, and my grandparents never saw one,” he says.

José Manuel Barbosa, another local in Las Viñas, says he takes special care when night falls because of the bears. “I make noises by hitting a stick,” he explains, adding that “people are not afraid and it is a wild animal.”

Corsino García, a local of Santiago del Hermo, believes “there are plenty of bears already.” He has around 45 cows on his property, and although bears have not hurt any of them, he does not like the fact that they are wandering so close. “Cows are not afraid of either the wild boar or deer, but they are afraid of bears,” he explains.

According to Simón, the bear is a “repentant carnivore.” “Sometimes it eats carrion or kills a chamois cub, but it does it out of pure need, it prefers vegetable proteins,” he explains.

Meanwhile in Pineda, another remote village home to just three or four people year-round, Argimiro Fernández complains that the bears are damaging his apiary. The resurgence of the animal “is against my interests,” says the 86-year-old. “Fifteen days ago [a bear] came and ate two hives.”

Between 2009 and 2018, 60.2% of all complaints of damage caused by bears in the Cantabrian mountains were from apiaries, 22.7% from orchards and 12.9% from livestock farmers, according to the FOP.

“Who does it benefit?” asks Cano López, a 76-year-old who lives in Pineda with his wife, Olga Cabezas, and son. “Hotel owners, tourists, people who have nothing to lose.” A few steps from his home, there are beehives protected by an electric fence.

“I was very environmentally conscious and I instilled respect for nature in my children. I don’t want to be opposed to the presence of the bears, because we have to live together. But they should stay in the mountain as before and the damage they cause should be paid for,” says Cabezas. She is also afraid of bears and tries not to go outside late at night because of them. “[The bear] is very clever, it’s as if there was a shameless person outside, who climbs on top of the hórreo [a typical granary built in wood or stone], breaks fences, trees. If I plant an apple tree, I don’t want it to destroy it, it’s for us to eat,” she says.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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