PARIS (AP) – The bears have cute names – bubble, feather, snowflake and the like – and look so soft and huggable when they are captured on video by distant cameras that examine their habits. But for shepherds high in the Pyrenees in south-western France, the animals are ice-cold killers, devastate herds and undermine the livelihood of the farmers.
Pyrenean cattle breeders who breed sheep for meat and particularly hot cheeses are delighted after receiving assurances from President Emmanuel Macron that he will not approve the release of additional bears responsible for the increase in fatal attacks.
“He promised that the reintroductions (of bears) would be completed, that he would not be released,” said Jean-Pierre Pommies, who raises sheep and cows. Macron in Pau, a town in the Pyrenees with great mountain views.
“He understood that it was a big problem for us,” added Pommies. “We have reached the bottom and the situation was ridiculous for the Pyrenees herders.”
When the last pocket of brown bears in France on the way to extinction appeared in the Pyrenees in the 1990s, the country started importing animals from Slovenia, where the population is booming. A total of eight were released in 1996, 1997 and 2006. Another release of two Slovenian bears – Claverina and Sorita – followed in 2018, the first full year of the Macron presidency.
The population is now estimated to be around 40 bears, which have doubled since 2010 and roam a long and expansive mountain range that forms the border between France and Spain from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.
Bear attacks on cattle have also increased. After being largely stable for a long time and mostly seeing between 100 and 200 attacks a year in the Pyrenees, including Spain, France and Andorra, they rose to almost 400 attacks in 2018, according to the latest official annual report.
One of the friends of Pommies, whose herd had been devastated by an attack last year, was one of the victims. The sheep were startled and fell from a cliff.
“There were 256 stacked on the floor,” he said. “They had to kill some of them with their knives. It is traumatic for us shepherds. “
He believes that the presence of predators is simply “incompatible” with the Pyrenees economy, which is largely based on herding.
“I love bears. I like them passionately as animals. But I love that they live happily in Yellowstone, Canada, Romania and Slovenia, “he said. In the Pyrenees, people who are for bears say that it worked for the vintage cars that she deals with have with it. And that’s completely wrong. History shows that men always killed them. “
The Pyrenees are just one of the battlefields in Europe to protect wildlife and plants. In France’s second largest mountain range, the Alps, wild wolves, which also hunt herds, are a constant source of tension between shepherds and opponents who oppose the use of large dogs to ward off wolf packs.
Wolves have triggered political tensions in Germany. The extreme right-wing opposition party Alternative for Germany accused the government of not defending the interests of the farmers against the 75 packs of wolf counted there. Belgium is also debating whether wolves will reappear after infrared cameras have spotted a pair in forests and lakes. A pregnant wolf was killed in northern Belgium last summer.
Slovenia’s brown bear population is so numerous that the authorities are eradicating the animals that give farmers a headache, attack beehives and even attack people in the small Alpine state. Around 170 bears were shot in 2019, said Damjan Orazem, the director of the forest service.
Shepherds, including pommies, pounced on Macron to talk about the bears of the Pyrenees when the French guide showed up at the Tour de France last year, on a day when the bike race swung through the peaks. Pommies said he had threatened to put his animals on horseback unless Macron agreed to meet. This brief encounter resulted in a promise from Macron that he would have extensive discussions with them later, an offer he had made good this week.
Emmanuelle Wargon, a deputy minister for the environment who attended the meeting, told Sud Radio that Macron “has reaffirmed that we have no plans to reintroduce (more) bears,” adding, “It was important to them to communicate this. “
For bearers, shepherds greatly exaggerate the risk of predators. Alain Reynes, director of the Country of the Bear group, believes that the actual number of animals killed by bears is far less than the 1,500, mainly sheep, that the Pyrenees herders lost in the past year.
Reynes also said that Macron’s moratorium on bear releases cannot last, as France is required by European law to ensure that the bear population remains viable.
“The president can only speak for the duration of his mandate,” he said. “There have always been bears. The story in the Pyrenees is a story of living together, even if it was not always easy. … There have been bears in Europe for 250,000 years. That is their space.”
Associate press writer Raf Casert in Strasbourg, France; Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, and Mike Corder in The Hague contributed to this report.