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Pyrenee's bears : What the hell !?

Pyrenee's bears : What the hell !?

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Pyrenee\'s bears : What the hell !?

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Created/Edited: Sep 16, 2008 / Dec 12, 2010

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Ferdinand ;)
Superb brown bear (this one is from Romania)

 Back to Slovenia !

Some of you, and perhaps most of you if you leave in France, Spain or Slovenia, have heard at least once about the problematic of the bears in Pyrenees.
Often, this topic is related by the medias, presenting both arguments and versions from the two camps, the supporters of the saving of this animal, and their opponents. Most of the time, relying on these medias, it is difficult to figure make its own opinion about the topic, because of a lack of concrete facts and information.
If you poll people in the street, almost everyone will say "I love bears, they're lovely animals and I think they should be saved, but if I meet one I don't know what I would do, so I understand also the cattle breeders !"
Following another approach, some other people, closer to the anti-globalism political views, tend to prefer the opponents version, which sounds less "dreamy ecologist" and closer to the local context and the reality. But often, also, without any really concrete reasons.

The aim of this article is to make it a bit more clear. Forgive me also for the poor pictures in order to illustrate it, but I did my best with what I could get. Any pictures of the European brown bear will be greatly appreciated.

The bear in the Pyrenees

bear hunting

In the prehistory, bears where present in almost all parts of the northern hemisphere. With the apparition of human activities, their dispersal clustered and the domains of the bears became limited to the only mountainous ranges.
Some of these populations disappeared: There were bears in Morocco, in UK, in Corsica, more than 1000 years ago...

The population of the Pyrenees started to regress some 200 years ago with the invention of guns, and the Pyrenees becoming an incressingly popular area for hunting (unfortunately not only at the detriment of bears, but also the extincted ibex, and the chamois, now saved, but who was close to the end in the 70's).

After the second war, bear hunting stopped almost completely, but the population quickly became to small to regenerate itself, and the population fragmented into several cores in the Pyrenees themselves: one population in the west, one in the Ariège, and one in the central Pyrenees.

In the 90's disappeared the central core, and 7 bears remained in the whole Pyrenees. Nowadays, the western core is almost extinguished too (the absence of traces this year even make some say that it might have ended), and most of the remaining bears, now some 20 individuals, concentrate in the Ariège, the heart of the "troubles"...

Why Slovenian bears ?

Sneznik massif from the...
Pyrenean Piedmont ? No, Snežnik. So different ?

When the Pyrenean bears reached this level, it was decided that some reintroductions were necessary in order to save this "familly", since the original bears where not numerous enough.
All the question became to find "which" bears to reintroduce. It had to be a bear as similar as possible, in the morphology and habits, and habitat.
First of all, let's make a little feedback about the bears races.

Most of the bears of the north hemisphere are of the same race, the brown bear, with "famillies", which correspond only to morphological differences which appeared as the bears populations became clustered. Hence, the American Grizzly, the Russian Kodiak, and the common European bear are all cousins, the "Ursus Arctos".

The links to the black bear, the polar white bear and the panda are much more remote in the genetical familly tree, here only we can speak about "other animals".

In Europe, the brown bear familly can be divided itself into 2 lines, despite these ones are very similar, and almost no-one would be able to differenciate them:
- The western line, which encompasses bears living in the Alps, Iberic peninsula, Scandinavia, Dinaric Alps and Rhodope.
- The eastern line, which encompasses bears living in the Carpathians, the Ural, the Caucasus (to verify, I am not sure).

The Western line is divided itself between two "refuges":
- The Balkanic refuge (Italy, ex-Yougoslavia, Greece, parts of the Eastern Alps)
- The Iberic refuge (Pyrenees, Picos de Europa)

Of course, the closest bear to the Pyrenean bear is the bear from the Picos de Europa (range in the North of Spain, in the alignment of the Pyrennes), where live some 70 bears; the separation of this population with the Pyrenees is quite recent in the nature history, since not long ago Basque country also was populated with bears.
But the effectif of the Picos de Europa itself is too fragile, according to Spannish experts (and probably with good reasons), to afford taking regularly such quotas of 5-10 to repopulate the whole Pyrenees.
The Iberic refuge is not a possible solution, and experts had to study the rest of the west line, according to specificities, but also population statistic and methods of captures in different countries.
As expected, it turned out quickly that the Scandinavian bears had a too different natural environment and way of feeding (more based on meat, especially fish).
The bears of the Alps are also under the threat of extinction (Italy itself is also importing bears from Slovenia), Austrian bears were scarily regressing in the only last year, and the only bear crossing into Germany was shot.
Greek bears are also endangered, party with important fires which destroy their habitat every summer. Only the bears of Dinaric Alps are remaining.

Before ending the West line, the possibility of buying some bears from Romania or Slovakia was also considered, partly because it is problematicly high in some areas (North Romania for example), but abandoned only as Slovenian bears appeared to be closer genetically, and living in more similar environment to the Pyrenees.

The north end of the Dinaric Alps, in the Snežnik range in Slovenia, has the particularity to host a particularly high population, sometimes problematic.
Bear release

Every year, a certain quota of bears is to be shot, just because they are too numerous to depend all of same place, and hungry bears tend to look for what they need near human habitat, as soon as they cannot find it in their natural environment.
Why do so many bears concentrate in Sneznik ? I once read that this was partly due to some populations coming from areas more south (Croatia, Bosnia), who escaped... the noise of the human war of Yougoslavia in the 90's....
If some other SP members have some precisions about this fact I'd be glad to make it more accurate.
Croatia also hosts a lot of bears in this area, but it appeared that Croatian bears were more often carrier of the virus of the rage. Slovenian authorities and nature monitoring also appeared to be from far the most competent in bear-capturing and the most keen in "exporting" some bears (and then deducing them from the hunting quotas), in order to contribute to the saving of bears in other endangered parts of Europe. In all points of view, a very wise philosophy.

Slovenian bears were then chosen.
The captured bears where first shot by a weapon charged with some soporific product. Then, the bear was placed in a cage into a quick land-rover, ready to drive all ath once the 2000km between Snežnik and the Ariège..
The bears released in 2006 were also meantime put a belt around the neck, with GPS emetor, and taken genetic sample.

The reintroductions

bear map

Unfortunately, for political reasons, and the periodical regain and fadeout of opposition, release of new bears were not always the main concern of the authorities, and occured so far by "waves".

For long ago, bears of the Pyrenees were always given names, for many reasons; to differenciate and locate them, for their personality, for their similarity to human behaviour sometimes, for the respect their inspire...

All Slovenian bears were given a name when released. Most of the original bears in the Pyrenees also have a name. But not all of them... let's say only the most "famous" (unfortunately, the ones who cause the most trouble). Quiet bears are often anonymous, sometimes we don't even know about their existence of their accurate number...

There were so far 2 main releases of bears:
- 3 bears in 96-97 : 2 females: Melba and Ziva, and 1 male, Pyros
- 5 bears in 2006 : 4 females: Franska, Palouma, Hvala, Sarousse and 1 male, Balou

Ziva gave birth first to 2 males in 97, Néré and Kouni. If it has been proved that Kouni's father is Pyros, released nearby, doubts still remain for Néré.
Kouni unfortunately died 3 years later. Néré, on the other hand, reproduced with the autochton female Canelle, giving birth to one male, the first "hybrid" Pyrenean-Slovenian bear. Ziva later gave birth to 3 other small males in 2000 and 2004, but one of them died. Their father is unknown.
Pyros was a very active male since he also reproduced with Melba, giving birth to one male, Boutxi and one female, Caramelle. Later Pyros reproduced with Caramelle herself, giving birth to 2 males, one dead in 2001, the other one still alive (but unnamed) in 2003.

The second wave was decided after the "accidental" (there is an ongoing and passionate debate on this topic) shooting of Canelle, the last original Pyrenean female, in 2004.
These releases occured in very tense atmosphere, opponents often trying to block and demonstrate on the choosen place for the releases. The town-hall of the village of Arbas was even vandalized, and policemen required to stop fights, before the first attempt of release of Palouma.
All 5 bears had to be released in areas kept secret until the very last moment, in the night and in the rush.
Bear prints

The events for the bears released in 2006, were unfortunately less happy than the first release, so far.
First, Balou decided to migrate out of the mountains. He was seen as close as 30km far from the subburb of Toulouse, before choosing by himself, fortunately, to return back to the Pyrenees, and avoid a probable shot or capture !
In the same year than the release, one day Palouma was found dead at the foot of a rocky cliff, as high as 2100m in altitude, at an uncommon place for a bear. Oponents stated that slovenian bears were not used to such high environement, while supporters introduced the hypothese that Palouma, possibly chased by hunters, was forced to retreat in this unhospital area.
Franska, who was several seen near habitations looking for food, was reported to be ill and caughing loudly. She was found dead in 2007 on a road, shot by a car. The expertise revealed that her body contained a huge amount of bullets...
Hvala was the most successful so far, as she gave birth to two males in 2007, baptised Pollen and Bambou. She was probably fecondated before her capture in Slovenia.
Sarousse is one of the quietest bears and life goes normally, with very little damage caused to herds of animals.

In 2008, Balou was also "accidentally" shot by a hunter, but fortunately not to death. He was reported to be hurt on one leg and to move with 3 only.
Boutxy, son of Pyros, described nowadays as a superb healthy male, was hit this year also by a minubus on a small road, fortunately again not to death. He is also said to be hurt and moving with one damaged leg.
Not very good news, knowing that an injured bear is more dangerous than a healthy bear...

The opponents and their arguments

Arbas town hall, anti-bear demonstration

Bear oponents are in first place the cattle breeders in the Pyrenees. Their herds of sheep/goat/cows are occasionally attacked by predators, supposedly most of the time the bear (supposedly, because it is not proved that the bear is statistically the most dangerous predator). In the same way than herds in the South of the French Alps are attacked by wolves.
Other strong opponents to the bear are people who live in little localities in the Pyrenean valleys, who often were told about bears sniffing around habitations, mostly bins, lokking for food. Most of the time these people are not direct witnesses of bear apparitions but are strongly convinced that human cohabitation with the bear is impossible, with such a dense network of roads and infrastructure which developped nowadays.
When slovenian bears are mentionned, local people speak about a remote wild country somewhere near Russia, and some wild monstruous carnivores that have nothing in common with the gentle "natives"...

Oponents find also support next to occasional policical figures, who "adopt" the ant-bear cause, looking for a rebound of pupularity near local populations.
Finally, a lot of people who doesn't live in these regions are also strongly convinced that the bear is not a good animal because it is dangerous, and above all, that it is potentially threatening tourists who hike the mountains, as well as people who live there.
This kind of people often base their opinion on facts related in America or in Eastern Europe, seen mostly on TV.

All of these people also point the fact that bear monitoring and reintroduction involves high costs, deduced from the french taxes, and that this money could be used in a better way.

All these last arguments can quickly be swept away.

If the bear happens to be occasionally dangerous in very specific situations, it is far to be systematically dangerous towards humans. Bears are very fearful, as soon as they detect human presence, and most of the time they are not seen. They can appear threating in occasions like for example when a female is with her children, but most of the time they just course the disturbing element without attacking.
The last bear attack which costed a human life occured 150 years ago in the Pyrenees, and there were not any of such incidents for several decades in the 20th century. Recently, in 2007 in Romania, an American tourist died from a bear attack, but it turned out that at the moment of the attack 10 people were around the bear taking photos with flash...
On the other hand, the Pyrenees mountain rescuers point out that vipers are causing much more trouble to hikers than predators in general.

As for the money involved in bear-monitoring, the amounts involved are ridiculously small compared to those in education, unemployments, etc. Bears cost less than one cent of Euro per french inhabitant.

Population and infrastructures density mentioned by some inhabitants is also not a very good argumentary, since the Pyrenees are not more populated and frequented by tourists than some other areas in Europe such as Slovenia, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Croatia, etc.

Thus, despite the fact that in some very specific places, the bear density is actually too high, but also higher than the level of other places where more bears live more peacefully than the Pyrenees.
Just for a comparison, some 80 bears live in the Slovak Tatras National park, 50km long, and visited by millions every year.

The arguments raised by the cattle breeders are finally the only respectable, and subject to a serious debate.

The depopulation of the Pyrenees.

Pyrenees depopulation

The Pyrenees, since the second half of the century, are subject to a phenomenon common to rural areas in western Europe: depopulation. This is