The Atlantic

Why Italians Are Growing Apples for Wild Bears

For some conservationists, preserving the wilderness no longer means just setting land aside and leaving animals alone.
Source: Peter Marlow / Magnum

I was trying to keep pace with Mario Cipollone as he hustled up a steep trail in the central Apennines of Italy. We were heading through a cold June rain toward an abandoned shepherd’s cabin in the Monte Genzana Reserve. Fallen beech leaves made a tawny carpet as we crossed a wooded ridge at 4,000 feet. Occasional wolf scat on the trailside provided evidence that these rugged hills were home to more than just birds and squirrels.

The 38-year-old conservationist, his hair cropped as short as a Special Forces soldier’s, scanned the dripping forest for something he thought important for me to see. “There!” he said, pointing toward a tree with a familiar look. “Apple! See how our volunteers have pruned it?”

The gnarled trunk was a relic from the time when these hills were cultivated by Italian farmers, before they abandoned their fields at the end of the Second World War. Volunteers under Cipollone’s guidance had removed the dead wood and opened the tree to the light in order to stimulate a return of fruit—not for the markets in nearby villages, but for the bellies of one of the region’s most notorious residents: the rare Marsican brown bear.

Cipollone and his co-worker Angela Tavone, who joined us on the hike, specialize in helping abandoned agricultural landscapes revert back to nature. As human inhabitants have left this part of L’Aquila, big animals, including the Marsican bear, have nosed their way back onto the abandoned farmlands and orchards. “Rewilders” such as Cipollone and Tavone are helping smooth their return.

“We don’t talk about these apples a lot,” Cipollone confessed with a sheepish grin. “Rewilders aren’t supposed to be pruning trees.”

Wildlife managers back in my home of Montana would be appalled by the idea of caring for fruit trees in order to feed bears. I once bumped into a U.S. Forest Service ranger as she left an abandoned apple orchard with a backpack

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