Brief fact sheet European Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)

Distribution

© Jürgen Vogt
To enlarge the map please click on it. © Jürgen Vogt

There was a time in when bears lived everywhere where there was forest and that was practically the whole of Europe. With the clearing of the woods the animals were forced to retreat into more and more remote regions. Already by the Middle Ages the habitat of bears was limited to inaccessible, still wooded mountains. In Europe the best bear habitats are extensive forests on steep-sloped, rocky territory where humans hardly ever stray.

The densest populations of bears in Europe are found in the Dinaric Mountains and the Carpathians. There are also smaller populations in the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Apennines. In the Cantabrian Mountains the numbers of brown bears have been on the rise since the 1990s. This is the result of the untiring efforts of EuroNatur and its Spanish partner FAPAS.

Notes on the map:

Data source: Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe (LCIE) data and from our own surveys.
The boundaries marked only give the core distribution areas as known at present. Individual bears and smaller populations may be found outside these areas.

Habitat

A good supply of food, enough places in which to take cover and a sufficient number of caves out of human reach are the crucial conditions for a population of bears to establish itself in an area in the long term. In Southern Europe extensive beech and oak woods, such as are found in the Dinaric Alps, offer perfect conditions for foraging: here Master Bruin can find an abundance of berries and insects not to mention the fruit from fruit trees and deer and other quarry in plenty. Bears are very shy, cautious animals by nature. A good habitat has to offer enough places of refuge in which the bears can raise their young well out of reach of human interference. The extensive forests of Scandinavia and East Europe offer perfect conditions for these furry giants.

Physical features

The European brown bear stands 1.70 to 2.20 metres (5.57ft to 7. 21ft) tall. Depending on the distribution region its weight can vary between 100 and 350 kilos. In all populations the males are heavier than the females. 

Tracks:

  • like all bears the brown bear walks plantigrade, that is on the whole foot
  • the tracks of the front foot have a length of about 16cm and back foot approx. 26cm

Reproduction

The mating season of brown bears is May to July. Both male and female bears are polygamous and may mate with different partners several times. The fertilized ovum remains free-floating in the uterus for up to five months, only attaching to the uterine wall at the beginning of hibernation when the real pregnancy begins. The cubs are born between January and March. A litter is usually two to three cubs and the female bear raises them alone. During this phase a female bear is extremely aggressive and will occasionally attack male bears if they come too close to the cubs. The cubs stay one and half to two years with their mother. As soon as she is ready to mate again she leaves her cubs. The cubs stay together a few months and then set off to find their own terrain.

Spanish brown bear having a bath

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Diet

Depending on the region nearly three-quarters of what brown bears eat is made up of plant life such as berries and grasses. In summer and autumn with fruit, nuts and acorns, chestnuts and beechnuts they feed more, taking in around 20 000 calories daily (equivalent to 30 kilos of apples) to build up the extra fat they need for hibernation. When bears leave their dens in spring there is little food to be found so they cover their needs with roots, grasses and herbs but also insects. Carrion, too, is now also an important source of food: this can be the remains of any animals, whether wildlife (e.g. deer) or grazing animals (e.g. sheep), which have not survived the winter.

Endangerment /conservation status

It is estimated that bears living in the wild can reach the age of 20 to 30 years. The average life expectation is, however, only six years. Many animals die of under-nourishment or disease. The bear's greatest enemy is man: in some countries bear hunting is still the order of the day and bears are often victims of poaching. The construction of roads fragments their habitats separating populations from one another and vehicle collisions with bears are on the increase.

In many countries in Europe bears are protected by law. International agreements in which the protection of bears is statutory are for example:

  • The Bern Convention
  • The Washington Convention also known as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of the Wild Fauna and Flora) and
  • The EC Council Directive on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (92/43/EEC) (The Habitats Directive).

How to behave in bear areas

Learn about how to react when facing a brown bear. 

Leaflet "How to behave in bear areas"

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The protection of Brown bears in Europe

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