Making sense of a famous bear’s death and the future of grizzlies and roadways
By Kayla Heinze, Communications Specialist
A few weeks ago, a bear died after being hit by a car. While tragic, this is not uncommon — vehicle collisions are one of the leading causes of grizzly deaths. But this particular fatality made headlines, including in the New York Times.
The individual bear in question was newsworthy on two accounts. A 3-year-old male, he was one of only 60 remaining Marsican brown bears (also called Apennine brown bears), a distinct subspecies found in Italy that is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He was also famous. A “mascot” for Italy’s Abruzzo region who was adored by locals and, after a few viral internet appearances, an international audience too.
Known as Juan Carrito, his untimely death reminds us that even the boldest bears are vulnerable to the outsize impact of humans.
Transportation corridors hinder wildlife
Here in Vital Ground’s home state of Montana, humans are directly responsible for an estimated 71 percent of grizzly deaths. Traffic accidents are not the largest portion of this alarming statistic, but they do account for many premature bear fatalities.
Roadways fragment habitat, inserting immovable obstacles into the natural pathways of grizzlies and other roaming species. When wild creatures do wander upon a transportation corridor, they are sometimes deterred from crossing altogether. In this case, the effective size of their world shrinks — our infrastructure blocks them from any diverse habitat, abundant food sources, and novel mates that might exist on the other side. In other cases, like Juan Carrito’s, they attempt to cross. In the hands of luck and the attentiveness of passing drivers, some make it safely on to continue their journey. Unfortunately, as was Juan Carrito’s fate, many do not.
When looked at broadly, our transportation needs impact wildlife through more than just car collisions and habitat fragmentation. Carbon emissions from our vehicles contribute significantly to climate impacts like hotter average temperatures, which are shifting seasonal patterns and threatening important grizzly food sources like various berry species and the nuts of Whitebark pine.
Trains also contribute to many wildlife fatalities. As the New York Times reported in a 2020 article about increasing grizzly death rates, bears are attracted to railways by ungulate carcasses left in the wake of trains and by the berry-producing shrubs that grow readily along the cleared sides of the tracks. These transportation corridors, both roads and railways, have been called “ecological traps” by scientists for the way they lure bears, and other wildlife, into dangerous situations from which they sadly do not always emerge alive.
As we wrote on the blog last year, progress is being made. Increased federal funding means wildlife crossings are utilized more to amend fragmentation and connectivity is becoming a bigger focus in large-landscape conservation efforts worldwide. Recent studies have confirmed the efficacy of these tools. Wildlife crossings, especially those 50 meters wide or more, lower the rate of fatal collisions. Habitat linkages between wilderness strongholds like national parks were found to increase the odds of large mammal species enduring long-term.
Vital Ground’s ongoing One Landscape Initiative is applying this principle of connectivity to the Northern Rockies, as we protect habitat in the corridors between these remaining wildland cores. Additionally, as part of our stewardship efforts on the conserved lands we manage, we assess existing roadways and in some cases decommission them. Recent projects, like our Donovan Creek linkage, are chosen specifically to make transportation corridors safer for bears and other wildlife. Many of our coexistence partnerships also help bears avoid attractants that might take them closer to roads, and several years ago we responded to a unique opportunity to help when our then-Board Chair connected two orphaned grizzly cubs with a new home after their mother was killed in a vehicle collision in Montana.
Subspecies conservation and a very important bear
As a young male, Juan Carrito leaves behind no offspring who will struggle to survive without him. But he does leave a legacy that will have lingering effects on both his species and ours.
For all endangered species, especially those like the Marsican brown bear with small and localized populations, each individual matters. Every death and birth has a significant impact on the overall trajectory of the species. With Juan Carrito’s early death, his genes will not be passed on and the amount of genetic resources available for the already struggling Marsican bears will shrink.
As a subspecies, these bears share many similarities with other Eurasian brown bears (the species to which they belong). But their endangered status and biology make them distinct. Unique characteristics such as their lower jaw – which biologists consider to have evolved remarkably quickly as an adaptation to eating nuts – will be lost with them, even if brown bears elsewhere survive.
Juan Carrito was a well-known member of the subspecies because of his boldness in exploring human-populated areas, including forays into ski resorts and the garbage cans of high-end restaurants. Food conditioning like this, which resulted in Juan Carrito being trapped and relocated by wildlife managers multiple times before his death, is another way bears are lured into precarious situations that can lead to conflict and an untimely death.
With his notoriety, Juan Carrito was, and still is, a charismatic ambassador for the Marsican brown bear. Similar to the role played by Vital Ground’s ambassador bears, Juan Carrito allowed people to connect with the species on an individual level and get a more intimate look at their awe-inspiring capabilities. This affection, in turn, helps motivate concern and action on behalf of the entire species.
Juan Carrito will be missed, as will the many unnamed bears who die because we have failed to make our shared landscapes adequately safe homes for them. It is too late for these bears, and we must allow ourselves time to grieve their tragic deaths. But we still have the power to change the tide of history from one marked by destruction to one of coexistence. We can still sway the fates of countless other bears as they attempt to cross our roads and railways.
Through habitat conservation projects and conflict prevention partnerships, your support of Vital Ground is already helping make the Northern Rockies safer for both bears and people. What better way to honor the life of Juan Carrito than by creating an abundant future for his fellow bears? I, personally, take much solace in the fact that, while we cannot alter the past, we are also not doomed to repeat it.