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 the Pyrenees.
Often, this topic is related by the media, 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 media, it is difficult to figure make their 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.
In prehistory, bears were 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 the 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 increasingly popular area for hunting (unfortunately not only at the detriment of bears, but also the extinct ibex, and the chamois, now saved, but who was close to the end in the '70s).
After the second war, bear hunting stopped almost completely, but the population quickly became too 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 makes 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"...
When the Pyrenean bears reached this level, it was decided that some reintroductions were necessary in order to save this "family", since the original bears were not numerous enough.
All the questions 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 northern hemisphere are of the same race, the brown bear, with "families", 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 family tree, here only we can speak about "other animals".
In Europe, the brown bear family can be divided itself into 2 lines, despite these ones are very similar, and almost no-one would be able to differentiate 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 "refugees":
- 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 natural history since not long ago Basque country also was populated with bears.
But the effect of the Picos de Europa itself is too fragile, according to Spanish 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 that destroy their habitat every summer. Only the bears of the 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 problematically 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.
Every year, a certain quota of bears is to be shot, just because they are too numerous to depend all of the 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 '90s....
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 a 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 keenest 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 were 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 at once the 2000km between Snežnik and the Ariège..
The bears released in 2006 were also meantime put a belt around the neck, with GPS transmitter, and taken genetic sample.
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 occurred so far by "waves".
For long ago, bears of the Pyrenees were always given names, for many reasons; to differentiate and locate them, for their personality, for their similarity to human behavior 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 autochthon 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 occurred in very tense atmosphere, opponents often trying to block and demonstrate on the chosen 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.
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 suburb 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. Opponents stated that Slovenian bears were not used to such a high environment, while supporters introduced the hypothesis that Palouma, possibly chased by hunters, was forced to retreat in this inhospitable area.
Franska, who was several seen near habitations looking for food, was reported to be ill and coughing 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, baptized Pollen and Bambou. She was probably fecundated 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 minibus 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...
Bear opponents are in the 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, looking 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 developed 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, unemployment, 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 Pyrenees, since the second half of the century, are subject to a phenomenon common to rural areas in western Europe: depopulation. This is due to several factors:
- Rural exode, as big cities like Pau, Toulouse, or Bordeaux have more attracting jobs for young people than the Pyrenean piémont.
- The low profitability of the agricultural sector in the Pyrenees.
- The apparition of more modern breeding and agricultural techniques out of mountainous ares, agriculture globalization, which makes concurrence more and more rude, and then difficult, not to say impossible, for small domains in the valleys of the Pyrenees.
Nowadays, the main income of products made in the Pyrenees is from high-quality products (cheese, milk, meat), made "the old way", brands with specific labels, everything which is called nowadays "bio" products, etc...
Without these classifications, Pyrenean products would not be concurrent on the market. Pyrenean agriculture is also highly dependant from European financial helps.
The terms in which I described these factors are not perhaps the most accurate, but here is the general tendance.
From the "landscape" point of view, all of this result in the same change: fields are abandoned, wild forest is reinvesting areas where it was eradicated; many paths and tracks are not maintained anymore, and in many places, before forest, starts growing some sort of bush, which sometimes take fire during the summer.
This is a paradoxical constatation of the modern times. While the Pyrenees never had so many ski stations, holidays residential areas, secondary asphalted roads, electric pylons and wires, antennas, while there never were so many hikers in touristic areas, the rest of the Pyrenees is going the opposite direction: wilder and wilder.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why some other wild animals like brown vulture, the chamois, the marmot, which were close to extinction, experience nowadays a rebound of vitality. Italians wolves were seen in Catalunia, after having crossed on foot the Massif Central, as well as the 2 motorways of the Rhone and the Garonne valleys.
Even the Pyrenean lynx, which is officially said to be extinct for 50 years, was witnessed in many occasions recently.
Coming back to the macroeconomic factors of this phenomenon, which result in low profitability for the cattle breeders, Pyrenees had to develop other forms of pastoralism to keep it working. Since for many years most of the predators were eradicated, breeders took the habit to leave herds of cattle alone in the mountains. Time is money and human presence next to the heards costs.
This is perhaps the only mountain range in Europe where hundreds of sheep wander in complete freedom, and where the word "shepherd" becomes more and more odd since real "shepherds" stay in the mountain...
Reintroduction of predators results, of course, in such incidents such as occasional bear attacks. Bears, but not only...
Vultures were often reported to attack young animals. In Catalunya, wolves also have caused few damages, and recently, a lynx attack was also suspected.
But still, wild predators remain a minority.
Most of the cattle attacks, indeed, are caused by abandoned dogs who live in wildness, close to the wolf lifestyle. Some people also witnessed bands of husky dogs from nearby ski stations, left in complete freedom, circumventing and attacking in a very methodic way herds of sheep.
However, this does not represent the biggest percentage of death.
Most of the cattle who die in the mountain die of illness. Human/dog presence next to the herds prevents from predator attacks but also ensures safe monitoring of the health of the cattle.
Recently, Pyrenean cattle are facing a quite severe scourge: the sheep catarrhal fever ("fièvre catarrhal ovine", FCO, also called "bluetongue disease"). This illness is propagated by a fly whose original habitat was northern Africa, and who settled in the Pyrenees.
In the only year 2008, the sheep catarrhal fever has caused more damage than bears over 10 years.
The government, along with the ecologic departments in charge of reintroducing and monitoring the bears, propose to offer free highly trained Pyrenean dogs (commonly called "Patous"), to cattle breeders who express such need, as well as such gear like electric fences, etc.
Furthermore, it was decided that all damage caused by bears attacks were to be refunded to owners of the victims, including when the responsibility of the bear was not clearly identified (dogs attacks are not refunded for example). These amounts of money are actually quite high.
Unfortunately, both of these decisions result in undesired effects.
The dogs are often refused by breeders, because they are interpreted like a "resignation" to the fact that wild predators must be accepted, hence a violation of their so-called "freedom" to breed cattle, as they used to during the last decades.
As for money helps, the tendance is following the opposite way. Attacks are systematically reported, even if they are not bear-related. Considering that analyzing a wound and taking a decision from this only observation is a bit tricky, we can easily figure out.
When the wound is wide, there is no doubt, this is the bear signature. When the wound is small, when there is no sign of evidence of the passage of the bear (footprint, destroyed fence, excrement, hairs, etc), the indemnity is often given, inspectors often facing the anger of breeders...
Recently it was stated that a form of abuse developed in this system, every single accident being systematically reported, not to mention the hypothesis when wounds would not have been made deliberately...
Paradoxically, cattle breeders continue to demonstrate against the reintroduction of new bears...
Considering all these facts, we can legitimately ask ourselves what is the real part of the responsibility of the bear in the crisis that the job of cattle breeder is experiencing nowadays.
In the reality, as we saw, the problem is more complex. Removing the bears will not solve many of the problems cattle breeders are facing nowadays. Their activity is simply ill, and endangered.
As for me, from my own egoistic point of view, sitting in my chair in front of my computer somewhere in the city, I wouldn't like to see good cheeses and good meat vanish from our market. Furthermore, I feel frustrated to know that the supposedly good products I buy come from potentially ill animals.
I would be ready to give few more euros in my yearly taxes, just to continue to promote the traditions of all of our nice regional products, and not only eat daily for the rest of my life the same supermarket things. I am sure that almost a hundred percent of french citizens, for or against bears, for this at least, think the same.
Then, why do the cattle breeders are so silent about this side of the problem? Why do they not demonstrate more often, simply to get more fiancial helps, to save our products ? Would the other men be more fearful of animals than the bears themselves?
Undoubtedly, with all the historical background, the cultural references, and everything this imposing animal inspires, the bear play a psychological role.
Perhaps, because its presence is a very concrete fact, the bear can be taken much more easily in an argumentary such that "government is deliberately putting another threat to our activity". Hence, the bear is perceived more like a provocation from the urban citizen, from the perverted remote power centralized in Paris, "far from the valleys", and so on.
In this situation, it is clear that the bear is only a "scapegoat". Will the tendency inverts itself, and will the few remaining opponents (few, because there is always a silent majority) become conscient of the context, and the challenge for their activity, and not only focus on the bears? Let's hope that this mentality will change soon....