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Switzerland's only wild bear is killed as a danger to humans

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
updated 10:32 AM EST, Thu February 21, 2013
Swedish brown bear, similar to the one killed in Switzerland, in Guestrow, eastern Germany, February 01, 2013.
Swedish brown bear, similar to the one killed in Switzerland, in Guestrow, eastern Germany, February 01, 2013.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Bear called M13 "was in no way a problem bear," says conservation group expert
  • It showed little fear of humans, Swiss wildlife service says
  • The young male was killed in an Alpine valley near the border with Italy
  • Supporters of M13 express their grief and outrage on Facebook

(CNN) -- M13 was the only bear known to have been living wild in Switzerland, according to the Swiss national broadcaster.

Despite that status, the young male was shot Tuesday morning in Poschiavo Valley, in the Alps near the Italian border, by authorities who feared he was a threat to people.

The brown bear had become dangerous because he regularly sought out food in inhabited areas -- including a school -- and had started following people during the day, the Swiss Federal Environment Office said.

The creature also showed little fear of humans despite several attempts to get it away from villages, it said.

There was so much concern about the bear's behavior, he was fitted with a radio collar so he could be closely monitored. And in November of last year, he was classified as a "problem bear."

When M13 emerged from his winter hibernation recently, that pattern of behavior was repeated, pushing authorities to act, the environment office said in a prepared statement Wednesday.

"The bear M13 had certainly never showed any aggression toward man, but the risk that an accident might happen and that people might be badly injured or killed had become intolerable," it said.

Nonetheless, news of his death prompted grief and outrage on a Facebook page set up by supporters of M13. Some questioned why he wasn't relocated or placed in a zoo rather than being shot by wildlife officers.

The Swiss branch of the World Wildlife Fund environmental campaign group said it was "extremely disappointed" that the bear was killed.

Joanna Schoenenberger, an expert on bears at the WWF, said it was far too soon to shoot M13.

M13 "was in no way a problem bear," she said, adding that wildlife officers should have continued efforts to make him more frightened of humans.

"His death is the result of a lack of acceptance of bears in Poschiavo, which is a direct consequence of a lack of information among the population," she said.

The risk remains that other bears might follow in M13's paw prints and stray into Switzerland's Grisons area.

According to the Swiss Federal Environment Office, M13 was one of about 40 individuals originating in the Trentino Alto Adige area of Italy, where a reintroduction program is under way.

The bear's name comes from the system of identifying bears from that Italian population, with M standing for males and F for females, said WWF spokesman Philip Gehri. M13 was the 13th male from that group to be born in the wild.

Faced with the migration of these bears, Swiss authorities have the dilemma of whether to try to protect the population as a whole or a few individuals, the environment office said.

"In order to give the bear population a chance to reestablish itself in Switzerland, circumstances sometimes arise when unfortunately an individual must be killed," it said.

Eight bears have entered Switzerland since 2006, the WWF said.

If others follow, they should not be killed "simply because we haven't done our homework," said Schoenenberger.

The WWF advises that people in areas where bears may be present safeguard livestock, put garbage in bear-proof trashcans and protect beehives.

And for the brown bear to survive in the Alps, its human neighbors must accept it, Schoenenberger said.

Switzerland is not the only country to struggle with the question of how to help humans and natural predators coexist without friction. In the United States, lawmakers in Minnesota voted last year to allow limited hunting of wolves, after they were removed from federal protection.

Conservation groups, including the Humane Society, opposed the decision, but the Minnesota-based International Wolf Center argued that wolves are a threat to domestic animals wherever the two coexist.

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