Project: Functional connectivity and ecological sustainability of European ecological networks - a case study with the brown bear

Acronym BearConnect (Reference Number: 147)
Duration 28/02/2017 - 28/02/2020
Project Topic Europe is a mosaic of landscapes that have long been shaped by human activities. Nevertheless, parts of Europe harbour extremely high biological diversity and still host populations of large carnivores. These predators at the top of the food webs have charismatic and cultural value, regulate biodiversity and ecosystem functioning over large scales, and deliver important ecosystem services. Successful conservation of these important species depends on strategies that allow for population expansion and exchange of individuals among subpopulations, to enable them to fulfil their vital role in the ecosystem while minimizing conflict with humans. This requires coherent systems of ecological networks that consider protected areas and reserves together with other non-protected components of the landscape matrix. In this project, we will focus on the largest and most iconic terrestrial carnivore, the brown bear (Ursus arctos) to investigate the degree to which existing ecological networks, including national protected areas and the Natura 2000 network, ensure landscape functional connectivity and ecological sustainability at different scales in Europe, and to provide practical recommendations for their improvement. Specifically, within the context of subthemes T2.1, T2.2, and T2.3 of the call, we will address four research objectives: a) evaluate functional connectivity and factors influencing brown bear distribution, movements, and effective dispersal in current landscapes and future landscape scenarios; b) understand the role brown bears have in ecosystems, with focus on trophic interactions and associated ecosystem services; c) assess the effectiveness of the existing system of ecological networks for supporting the resilience of brown bear populations and associated ecosystem services; and d) provide spatially explicit guidelines for the improvement of ecological networks to be used in landscape connectivity planning for the conservation of brown bears and other species in Europe. To accomplish these objectives, we will combine telemetry, demographic, genetic and ecological data from 10 European brown bear populations, and use approaches from landscape genetics, ecological modelling, and food web analysis to assess movement, dispersal, gene flow, and range and food web dynamics as the key processes for species persistence and adaptation, and for maintenance of ecosystem services. We have organized the project in five highly integrated work packages (WP). We will first coordinate with relevant stakeholders across Europe (WP5) to combine different data types available for the study bear populations. We will use the data to evaluate patterns of functional connectivity and landscape effects on bear movement and gene flow (WP1), and to derive the structure of food web interactions and the economic value of a key ecosystem service (dispersal of plant seeds) provided by brown bears (WP2). We will then combine this knowledge with state-of-the-art modeling approaches to predict future changes in range dynamics of the brown bear and its food resources (WP3). Based on these results, we will use quantitative model comparisons to evaluate existing ecological networks with respect to our model species, and use multi-species simulations and optimization procedures to assess whether the networks are suitable for conserving biodiversity and ecosystems functions and where management actions are required for improvement (WP4). Results will be used to develop practical, spatially-explicit recommendations in cooperation with stakeholders on how to maintain and improve the long-term functionality of ecological networks for policy advice (WP5). Outcomes of BearConnect will be relevant for the policy application relative to biodiversity conservation and implementation of ecological networks in Europe, including the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, the Habitat EU Directives, the EU-wide strategy on Green Infrastructure, and the Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. In addition, the brown bear is a species of high conservation concern in Europe, for which management actions for habitat protection and enhancement of connectivity have been given the highest urgency. The research proposed in BearConnect will concretely contribute to the achievement of these conservation priorities. Our consortium of six research groups will ensure a highly interdisciplinary, integrated, and advanced scientific environment to tackle our research objectives with novel integrated approaches. In addition, collaboration with various categories of stakeholders, including other research groups and institutions in different European countries, will be instrumental for implementating project results beyond the duration of BearConnect at a large geographic scale, and for more integrated and effective work on connectivity for bears and other large carnivores across Europe.
Network BiodivERsA3
Call BiodivERsA3 Joint Call 2015

Project partner

Number Name Role Country
1 CNRS, Université Grenoble Alpes Coordinator France
2 Georg-August-University Göttingen Partner Germany
3 National Institute for Research and Development in Forestry “Marin Dracea” Partner Romania
4 Polish Academy of Sciences, Institute of Nature Conservation Partner Poland
5 Telemark University College Partner Norway
6 University of Rome “La Sapienza” Observer Italy