Against the backdrop of the Cantabrian Mountains, nature’s actors weave a delicate web of interactions. Each depends on the others, for if one disappears, all are in danger. Over more than three decades, the Fondo para la Protección de los Animales Salvajes (FAPAS) has been observing and documenting these relationships. On this long watch, they have identified co-dependencies of unsuspected value to the ecosystem. We now know that protecting the Cantabrian brown bear also means protecting fruit trees, which in turn means protecting bees and building hives that are proof against bear attacks. And, of course, human uses of the ecosystem are an integral part of the same network.
“If the bees disappear, the ecosystem collapses.” Ten years ago, FAPAS president Roberto Hartasánchez voiced this warning to the news media. FAPAS had just launched its first projects to restore the European honey bee, a species that is now wholly reliant on the region’s human population, yet one whose pollinating role is “a vital link in the fruit production chain for over 80% of flowering plants,” states FAPAS on its website.
By the late 1990s the association had realized that bee populations were dwindling throughout the Cantabrian mountain range. The chief culprit was the Varroa mite, a parasite introduced by Asian bees imported to Europe, along with the gradual abandonment of mountain beekeeping, a millennia-old practice in these parts. FAPAS raised the alarm about this decline, underscoring its importance not just for the bee itself but for other landmark species like the bear or capercaillie. Not only that, it set in train campaigns to boost pollination in montane ecosystems and the project Colmenas para el oso (Hives for the Bear), which continues to this day. The dramatic decrease in bee populations is now acknowledged as a global environmental and economic problem of the first magnitude.
FAPAS’ pioneering work with bees is just one example of the efforts to conserve Cantabrian species and ecosystems undertaken by this association, the latest recipient of the BBVA Foundation Award for Biodiversity Conservation in Spain for its project “FAPAS in Action. Over 35 Years Conserving Biodiversity.”
The award distinguishes the extensive trajectory of this association born in Asturias in 1982, when a group of friends set out to halt the disappearance of vulture populations in the Picos de Europa, by then down to an all-time low of just eight pairs. Over the decades that followed, FAPAS has become one of the most active groups in the conservation of representative species in Cantabria, some among them seriously under threat. For Hartasánchez, the award is not just a recognition of the work done throughout these years, but also “a vital injection of support at a time when the ecologist movement is losing ground.” Environmentalist associations, he continues, “have become increasingly dependent on the support of the authorities. We, however, have refused to accept any kind of public funding so as to keep our independence, and this award means we can continue to do so.”
FAPAS owes its success to a deep-seated knowledge of the terrain and its inhabitants, and the efforts it has made to understand the part played by each member of the ecosystem network. In doing so, it has called on the support of a fairly simple but nonetheless effective technology known as the camera trap. FAPAS pioneered the use of this technique, comprising the setup of cameras that fire automatically when an animal crosses in front of the lens.
These traps, which FAPAS began installing in the early 1990s, have become an invaluable tool for wildlife observation. The organization now has over one hundred automatic cameras in place, providing round the clock surveillance, and generating thousands of images that have delivered findings with major implications for conservation practice.
For example, they have been able to gather an abundant photographic record of such little known animal behaviors as the Cantabrian brown bear’s appetite for carrion. “Cantabrian bears are opportunistic feeders,” Hartasánchez explains. “They are infrequent predators, but prone to scavenging on carrion.” This indeed is nothing new. “Bears emerge from their caves after hibernation in a state of extreme thinness, and regularly eat the carcasses of animals that have perished in the winter snows. Finding a cow that has fallen from a ridge provides an extra energy contribution for very little effort, and can ensure the animals’ survival when food is scarce in its hill-land habitat.”
This insight led FAPAS to campaign against a European regulation in the mid-2000s that ordered the removal of all dead animals from the countryside in a bid to halt the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as “mad cow” disease. “We went to Europe and warned them that this provision could jeopardize the survival of an already threatened species, the Cantabrian brown bear,” Hartasánchez recalls, “and the great thing was that they changed their minds.” This example is more than merely anecdotal, because the law against leaving carcasses on the hillsides was affecting not only the bears but the Cantabrian ecosystem’s other lead actors, its human settlers. “In the absence of carrion, the animals began to consume protein in the form of beehive larvae, which triggered a new clash between the bear and beekeepers,” explains the FAPAS president.
Today, much of FAPAS’ activity involves convincing local people to go back to leaving dead livestock in the countryside, a practice that is once again legal and that benefits not just the predators – bears and also wolves – but beekeepers and farmers.
Among the other episodes caught by the cameras were attacks on hives by hungry bears, looking for honey, certainly, but also the protein offered by the larvae. Confronted with the problem, FAPAS technicians came up with an innovative solution: bearproof beehives in the animals’ established territories – the aforementioned “Hives for the Bear” project. After trying out various designs, they were able to install around a thousand specially reinforced hives, which allowed the bears to get to the honey without destroying the box itself, thereby favoring the direct pollination of flora and the formation of new swarms of bees.
But this is not the only instance of a campaign led by keen observation of ecosystem interaction webs. In the late 1980s, before they were even aware of the threats facing the region’s bees, FAPAS’ expert teams had managed to piece together a series of simultaneous events: beekeepers’ complaints that their bees were dying from some unknown cause; the absence of blueberries; and an increase in bear attacks on hives. “We realized there had to be a connection,” Hartasánchez relates. “For if there were no bees there could be no blueberries, which are part of the bears’ diet.” Among the organization’s responses was to plant more than 1,500 fruit trees, providing food for numerous species besides the bear, while helping to mitigate erosion.
None of these actions equates to a magic wand. For FAPAS, the challenge of conserving biodiversity in a region with a heavy human presence calls more than anything for determination and the coordinated involvement of all relevant public authorities. The bear’s situation is a case in point. Distributed in two populations occupying lands in Asturias, Castilla y León, Cantabria and Galicia, bears have been in recovery since the end of the 20th century, but there is as yet no robust or stable gene flow between both groups. FAPAS ascribes the disparate conservation status of the two enclaves to a lack of “standardized and coordinated management” on the part of the responsible regional administrations.
Despite the ambitious scale of its activity in mountain areas, FAPAS also devotes time and resources to the Cantabrian coast. One of its goals is to boost the presence in river estuaries of the osprey, a species considered to be a marker of a well-conserved nearshore environment. Since 2006, specifically, FAPAS has been installing nests and perching sites along the coastline of Asturias, where the raptor is known to have once bred.