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Large Carnivores Gaining Ground in Populated Europe

Dec 19, 2014 01:46 PM EST

Large carnivores like the gray wolf, brown bear, lynx and wolverine are swiftly gaining ground in Europe, after the densely populated continent hunted and displaced them to near extinction a century ago, a new study says.

"The total area with a permanent presence of at least one large carnivore species in Europe covers 1,529,800 square kilometers (roughly one-third of mainland Europe), and the area of occasional presence is expanding," the authors wrote in the journal Science.

And international team of scientists surveyed the continent - with the exception of Russia and Belarus - for signs of the species' recovery. They found that brown bears were the most abundant of the carnivores, numbering around 17,000 individuals, and with a permanent presence in 22 of the 26 studied countries.

The gray wolf was next highest on the list, with a population of more than 12,000 scattered across 28 countries, followed by the Eurasian lynx, 9,000 of which were identified in 23 countries.

Meanwhile, wolverines were harder to come by, with an estimated 1,250 of the cold-climate creatures found in just three countries - Norway, Finland and Sweden.

Although these four species show promise, with most populations either stable or on the upswing, others are still edging extinction. Gray wolves of Spain's Sierra Morena region, for instance, or the Pyrenees bears and lynx found in France's Vosges region still show dwindling numbers.

Despite this fact, researchers are still confident that these carnivorous creatures can make a comeback, even amidst a human-populated landscape.

"Our results are not the first to reveal that large carnivores can coexist with people but they show that the land-sharing model for large carnivores (coexistence model) can be successful on a continental scale," the study stated.

Human activities may have at one time caused devastating habitat loss for these wild animals, but even so, Europe today has twice as many wolves as the United States even though its population is twice as dense. Not to mention that all four studied species live and reproduce outside protected areas, where the likelihood of conflict with humans runs higher.

The United States knows only too well the controversial topic of wildlife and human conflict, especially with wolves, which often prey on valuable livestock.

"You can have a lot of wolves and bears in California; you just have to move to a coexistence mindset," study lead Guillaume Chapron told National Geographic.

Researchers behind this study attribute Europe's successful coexistence to conservation policies - such as the Berne convention of 1979 - and the replenishing of stocks of prey like deer and wild boars, providing these carnivores with a feast fit for a king.

Chapron also credited the Habitats Directive, a set of conservation regulations that protects species and habitat types across national borders.

"We have found a recipe that works," he told Live Science.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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