Main Findings

In this project, we focused on the brown bear (Ursus arctos), to investigate landscape functional connectivity and ecological sustainability in Europe, and used results to provide practical recommendations for connectivity conservation in the context of ecological networks. To do this, we used a combination of field, laboratory, and modeling approaches, literature reviews, databases of GPS occurrence, telemetry and genetic data, and carried out analysis at the local to European scale. Local studies showed that brown bear movement patterns and gene flow are affected by human related factors acting in concert with individual behavioral responses. This was consistent with patterns found at the continental scale, showing that the human footprint contributed to the observed variation in movement and connectivity across individuals and bear populations. We found that the distribution of the brown bear in Europe was best explained by considering both direct and indirect impacts and current and past distributions, highlighting the importance of integrating different knowledge to evaluate effects of global changes on species distribution and vulnerability. We showed that brown bears disperse large quantities of viable seeds of fleshy fruits, particularly Vaccinium spp., of which they facilitate sexual reproduction through directed endozoochory. Brown bear diet is principally composed of natural food, even in human-dominated environments; however, the human footprint can influence the ecosystem service of seed dispersal provided by brown bears.

Intra and inter population analysis revealed that protected areas and Natura 2000 sites cover only a small fraction of areas important for connectivity (i.e. ecological corridors), that are fundamental for supporting resilient brown bear populations and associated ecosystem services. Moreover, we predict that there will be fewer corridors with higher resistance to movement in the future. We argued for an approach to connectivity conservation that goes beyond the concept of protected areas. In order to meet connectivity goals that benefit entire communities and ecosystems, we recommend focusing connectivity conservation efforts on multiple (rather than single) umbrella species, selected based on scale and species/landscape attributes. We also emphasize the high conservation value of long-distance dispersers in large carnivores and the need to consider them in conservation policies. We developed a decision support tool for stakeholders to inform connectivity management for road-infrastructure planning and contributed to IUCN guidelines for ecological corridors with a workshop on connectivity conservation and a case study.