"As a result, animals change their behavior," PhD candidate Gro Kvelprud Moen says.
She has researched what happens when Scandinavian brown bears encounter people. The results of her doctorate corroborate previous research that shows that bears avoid people.
"The aim of the study was to describe how Scandinavian brown bears react when they encounter people on foot. We have also identified which factors affect the behavior of the bears.”
More than 500 experimental disturbances have been done on brown bears in Sweden and Finland. The disturbances have also been repeated several times on the same bear to investigate whether the bears display any form of habituation or learning behavior.
The results showed that brown bears avoided people during such encounters, and that they most often reacted by moving away.
"80% of the bears moved away when people approached," Moen says.
"None of the bears showed any kind of aggressive tendencies. Nor did they seem to become familiarized with being disturbed.”
Difference between Sweden and Finland?
Moen has also compared bears in Sweden with bears in Finland. The Finnish bears in this survey live in areas with more people and more infrastructure than the Swedish ones.
"One hypothesis was that the bears living in areas with more human activity reacted differently from those living in more remote areas," she says.
That turned out not to be correct. There was no difference between Finnish and Swedish bears.
“My results confirm previous studies: Fennoscandic bears generally avoid people.”
It is possible that brown bears in Fennoskandia react differently to encounters with humans compared to bears in other parts of Europe and in North America. Both Finnish and Scandinavian bear populations declined rapidly in the late 1800s and early 20th centuries. Due to the extinction policy of the Norwegian and Swedish governments in the 1800 and 1900s, the number of bears in Scandinavia decreased from 4000-5000 to about 130.
Favoring elusive bears
This intense hunting regime has most likely resulted in strong evolutionary forces that have favored bears that avoid humans at all costs.
"The bears that by nature were less afraid of humans were most likely shot during this period," Moen says.
This type of effect still affects today's bears.
"Research has shown that bears run a greater risk of being shot in areas near people.”
This means that the bears that are most afraid and stay farthest away from people are also most likely to survive longer and have more offspring.
"There is no reason to expect that Scandinavian bears will change their behavior with increased human use of their habitats," she concludes.