Somiedo Experience

Debate Ensues Over the Best Methodology for Cantabrian Bear Census as Genetic Analysis Sparks Controversy

In the lush wilderness of the Cantabrian Mountains, an ongoing debate is stirring within the conservation community regarding the most accurate methodology for assessing the population of Cantabrian bears, an iconic and endangered species native to northern Spain.

For decades, the traditional method of estimating the bear population relied on an annual census of bears with cubs. However, recent shifts in policy by several regional governments are advocating for an exclusive reliance on genetic analysis for this purpose.

A lack of consistency with genetic results?

The controversy stems from the perceived unreliability of genetic censuses. Critics argue that this scientific method, which involves analyzing the DNA of bears to determine population size, has yielded inconsistent results, leading to doubts about its accuracy.

An illustrative case in point is the eastern Cantabrian bear population. A genetic census conducted two years apart, utilizing the same methodology but by different laboratories, produced significantly different results. The penultimate census estimated around 50 individuals, while the subsequent one raised the count to 120. Such discrepancies have raised questions about the credibility of genetic analysis as a reliable method for population assessment.

Debate Ensues Over the Best Methodology for Cantabrian Bear Census as Genetic Analysis Sparks Controversy
Regional governments favor genetic analysis, while conservationists remain committed to traditional census methods. Photo FAPAS

The key concern lies in the lack of consistency and standardization when genetic censuses are conducted by different laboratories. Critics argue that this variability in results makes it challenging to obtain a definitive picture of the bear population’s status. As a result, many are skeptical of the claim that the eastern bear population has surged to 120 individuals based solely on the latest genetic census carried out by MITECO (Ministry for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge).

How FAPAS monitor the Cantabrian bear population

In contrast to the genetic analysis approach, the Foundation for the Protection of Asturian Wildlife (FAPAS) continues to advocate for the traditional method of tracking breeding females to monitor the bear population. FAPAS has been conducting fieldwork for decades to gain precise insights into the population’s evolution, particularly in the vital breeding nucleus situated in the Somiedo Natural Park in Asturias.

The latest data from FAPAS reveals that 12 bears have given birth, resulting in a total of 21 cubs. These births are broken down as follows:

  • 4 females with 1 cub each
  • 7 females with 2 cubs each
  • 1 female with 3 cubs

However, up to August 2023, 4 females have sadly lost all of their cubs, resulting in 6 casualties. Additionally, two of the female bears have lost one cub each from their litters. This means that, as of August, only 13 out of the 21 born cubs have survived, underscoring the challenges and natural mortality that bears face in the wild.

Moreover, FAPAS highlights the importance of maintaining strict control and identification of breeding females to avoid potential duplication in the census when the same females give birth in consecutive years.

In the high mountain areas and densely forested territories of the Somiedo Natural Park, dozens of observers flock to catch glimpses of bears, particularly those with cubs, making it relatively easy to locate and monitor them. However, identifying females in densely forested regions presents more significant challenges. Autonomous teams play a crucial role in locating and tracking these reproductive females, offering a more reliable means of monitoring the bear population’s evolution.

Debate Ensues Over the Best Methodology for Cantabrian Bear Census as Genetic Analysis Sparks Controversy
The brown bear population in the Cantabrian Mountains has an estimated census of 370 individuals, of which 250 are in the western subpopulation and 120 in the eastern subpopulation. By autonomous communities, 53 percent of the population is in Castilla y León, with 197 specimens, followed by Asturias with 35 percent and 131 specimens, Cantabria with 31 specimens, which represent eight percent, and Galicia with three percent of the total hand of eleven animals. Photo FAPAS

Despite the controversy surrounding genetic analysis, some political leaders have announced their intent to discontinue traditional censuses of bears with cubs in favor of genetic methods. This marks a historical shift, as these traditional censuses have played a vital role in understanding the bear population’s evolution and in detecting threats such as poaching when breeding females disappear.

In response, FAPAS emphasizes that as long as genetic censuses remain as unreliable as recent ones, abandoning tried-and-true techniques like tracking reproductive females would be premature. The organization reaffirms its commitment to conducting bear censuses using traditional methods to ensure the continued conservation of these magnificent creatures.

This article was translated from FAPAS here:

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