Brown Bear - Distribution and Habitat

Distribution and Habitat

There are approximately 200,000 brown bears left in the world. The largest populations are in Russia with 182,990 the United States with 32,500, and Canada with 21,750. About 95% of the brown bear population in the United States is in Alaska, though in the lower 48 states, they are repopulating slowly but steadily along the Rockies and the western Great Plains. Although many people hold the belief some brown bears may be present in Mexico and the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, both are almost certainly extinct. The last Mexican brown bear was shot in 1960. In Europe, there are 14,000 brown bears in ten fragmented populations, from Spain (estimated at only 20–25 animals in the Pyrenees in 2010, in a range shared between France, Spain and Andorra, and some 85–90 animals in Asturias, Cantabria, Galicia and León, in the Picos de Europa and adjacent areas in 2003 and some 100 animals in 2005) in the west, to Russia in the east, and from Sweden and Finland in the north to Romania (4000–5000), Bulgaria (900–1200), Slovakia (with about 600–800 animals), Slovenia (500–700 animals) and Greece (with about 200 animals) in the south. They are extinct in the British Isles, extremely threatened in France and Spain, and in trouble over most of Central Europe. The Carpathian brown bear population of Romania is the largest in Europe outside Russia, estimated at 4,500 to 5,000 bears, although declining alarmingly due to overhunting. There is also a smaller brown bear population in the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine (estimated at about 200 in 2005), Slovakia and Poland (estimated at about 100 in 2009 in the latter country). The total Carpathian population is estimated at about 8,000. Northern Europe is home to a large bear population, with an estimated 2,500 (range 2,350–2,900) in Sweden, about 1,600 in Finland, about 700 in Estonia and 70 in Norway. Another large and relatively stable population of brown bears in Europe, consisting of 2,500–3,000 individuals, is the Dinaric-Pindos (Balkans) population, with contiguous distribution in northeast Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria and Greece.

Brown bears were once native to Asia, the Atlas Mountains of Africa, Europe, and North America, but are now extinct in some areas, and their populations have greatly decreased in other areas.

Brown bears live in Alaska, east through the Yukon and Northwest Territories, south through British Columbia and through the western half of Alberta. Small populations exist in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of northwest Wyoming (with about 600 animals), the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem of northwest Montana (with about 750 animals), the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem of northwest Montana and northeast Idaho (with about 30–40 animals), the Selkirk Ecosystem of northeast Washington and northwest Idaho (with about 40–50 animals), and the North Cascades Ecosystem of northcentral Washington (with about 5–10 animals). These five ecosystems combine for a total of roughly 1,470 wild grizzlies still persisting in the contiguous United States. Unfortunately, these populations are isolated from each other, inhibiting any genetic flow between ecosystems. This poses one of the greatest threats to the future survival of the grizzly bear in the contiguous United States.

In Asia, brown bears are found in most of Russia, parts of the Middle East, and in a small area of Northeast China. They can also be found on the Japanese island of Hokkaidō (with about 2000–3000 animals), Western China, and parts of North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

The population of brown bears in the Pyrenees mountain range between France and Spain is so low, estimated at 14 to 18, with a shortage of females, that bears, mostly female, from Slovenia were released in spring 2006 to reduce the imbalance and preserve the species' presence in the area, despite protests from French farmers.

A small population of brown bears (Ursus arctos marsicanus) still lives in central Italy (Apennine mountains, Abruzzo and Latium), with no more than 70 individuals, protected by strong laws, but endangered by the human presence in the area.

In Arctic areas, the potential habitat of the brown bear is increasing. The warming of that region has allowed the species to move farther north into what was once exclusively the domain of the polar bear. In non-Arctic areas, habitat loss is blamed as the leading cause of endangerment, followed by hunting.

The species generally seems to prefer semiopen country, with a scattering of vegetation that can allow them a resting spot during the day. North American brown bears, or grizzly bears, seem to prefer open landscapes, with the species once having been common on the Great Plains and continue to occur in tundra and coastal estuaries and islands. In Europe and the Caucasus, they inhabit mostly mountainous woodlands, though may have been driven into more wooded, precipitous habitats due to the prior extensive persecution of the species in some regions. In Central Asia, where human disturbances are minimal, they may be found in alpine meadows and even desert edge. In Siberia, the species seems to live in denser pine forests. It is thought the Eurasian bears which colonized America were tundra-adapted and the species is sometimes found around sub-Arctic ice fields. This is indicated by brown bears in the Chukotka Peninsula on the Asian side of Bering Strait, which are the only Asian brown bears to live year-round in lowland tundra like their North American cousins.

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