The brown bear once ranged across all of Europe and most of Scandinavia. In Scandinavia, the bear population began to steadily decline and their distribution contract just after the 17th century. By the 18th century, the brown bear was fully absent from the southern parts of Sweden. The SBP estimates there were around 4,700-4,800 bears in Scandinavia by the middle of the 19th century, with about 3,100 in Norway and 1,650 in Sweden.
As with most large carnivores during this time, politics weighed heavily on their existence. The governments of both Sweden and Norway sought to eradicate the bear, and both countries paid relatively large bounties to achieve their means. Hunters received good income from national and local bounties as well as the sales of meat and skins. Between 1856 and 1893, bounties were paid for 5,164 bears in Norway and 2,605 in Sweden, which led to a rapid population decline in both countries. The decline was faster in Sweden because the population was smaller. Bears quickly disappeared from the landscape and, in the end, bears only remained in the more inaccessible mountain areas in the north.
The Swedish Hunters' Association and the Swedish Academy drafted plans at the turn of the century 20th century to save Sweden’s bear population from extinction. This is also about the time that Sweden and Norway parted ways in terms of bear management goals. Sweden abolished bounties in 1893 and introduced several measures in that halted the population decline by around 1930. At that time, there were approximately 130 surviving bears left in four remaining subpopulations in Sweden. Norway abolished bounties in 1930, but local bounties were allowed until 1972. It is thought the last ‘native Norwegian’ bear disappeared from Vassfaret in the 1980’s, after which the bear was extirpated from the country. In 1942, the Swedish population was estimated at 294 bears, and it was decided their population was large enough to withstand hunting. License hunting was reintroduced in Sweden in 1943.
The bear population increased approx. 1.5% per year from 1943 to 1994. The SBP estimated the Scandinavian population was about 650-700 individuals in Sweden and 22-35 in Norway in 1994. Since then, the brown bear has rebounded and stabilized; as of 2018, there were about 2600 bears in Sweden. The Norwegian population remains small, estimated at about 140 individuals as of 2020.
The Genetic Past
Analyses of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) documented that the European brown bear consists of two genetic lines; one with an eastern origin (from Russia) and one with a western origin (the rest of Europe). The western lineage is further divided into two subgroups, one originating from the Iberian Peninsula and the other from the Balkan region. Both the Iberian and the Russian lines are currently represented in Scandinavia.
At the population low, there were only ~130 individual brown bears remaining in Scandinavia. This suggests the population went through a genetic bottleneck, which is concerning as such small populations experience random loss of genetic diversity and are more inbred. However, recent SBP research showed relatively high levels of genetic variation between individuals, similar to populations in North America that did not undergo a bottleneck. The reason for this may be that a) the historical bottleneck in Scandinavia lasted a relatively short time, as measured by the number of generations, which is about 10 years for brown bears, and b) because the bears survived in several different residual populations.