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A Eurasian brown bear at a zoo in Amnéville, France │© Tambako The Jaguar
A Eurasian brown bear at a zoo in Amnéville, France │© Tambako The Jaguar
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Grin and Bear it: An Uneasy Coexistence in the Pyrenees

Picture of Paul McQueen
Updated: 13 January 2017
Once widespread in France, the brown bear was almost wiped out in the 1990s. The reintroduction of Slovenian bears to the Pyrenees in 1996 and 2006 helped bring their numbers up to around 30, but the last of the mountain range’s native bears was killed by hunters in 2004. The animal’s presence remains a major bone of contention for local farmers, pitting rural communities against conservationists and politicians in Paris.

As ironic as it must sound to city-dwellers reading this article while simultaneously listening to their upstairs neighbor flushing the toilet, the couple downstairs having their third fight of the week, and the guy across the shaft playing some violent video game with the volume turned up way too loud, the debate surrounding the brown bear’s survival in the remote mountains and valleys of the Pyrenees comes down to a question of space. Can their population grow without it causing an unjust impediment to the sheep and cattle farmers who fear for the safety of their livestock?

A mountain lake at Fabrèges in the French Pyrenees │© Paulo Valdivieso

A mountain lake at Fabrèges in the French Pyrenees │© Paulo Valdivieso

There’s no doubting that bears need a lot of room. A female will carve out a territory of about 38 square miles (mi²) but a male can require ten times that amount to roam. Ecologists estimate that the Pyrenees could support a population of up to 600 bears. On the French side, approximately 2.8 million people live in five départments with a combined area of 10,589mi², which gives the region a population density of 265 people per square mile (/mi²).

Now, if all 600 of these imaginary bears were to reside in France, their density would be approximately 0.06/mi². For comparison, New York State covers an area of 54,556mi² and is home to as many as 8,000 black bears and nearly 19.5 million people, giving higher population densities of 0.15/mi² and 355/mi², respectively.

Given that the current bear density in the French Pyrenees is a microscopic 0.003/mi², why are the locals so much more upset than New Yorkers, who are 50 times more likely to run into a bear?

A Eurasian brown bear at the Parc Animalier des Angles │© Ben

A Eurasian brown bear at the Parc Animalier des Angles │© Ben

The problem lies in the fact that as the bear population has declined, the number of sheep and other livestock on the mountains has increased. During the summer, over 620,000 sheep graze on the high Pyrenean pastures. While a bear’s diet is at least 70% herbivorous, it will, on occasion, decide that lamb is on the menu.

In total, between 10,000 and 20,000 sheep are lost on the slopes each year to exposure, lightning strikes, falls, disease and attacks. But bears are only responsible for about 300 of these deaths (between 1.5% and 3% of fatalities), whereas dogs kill as many as 1,000 sheep.

A French sheep herder │© Joan Campderrós-i-Canas

A French sheep herder │© Joan Campderrós-i-Canas

For each confirmed bear kill, the French government compensates the farmer anywhere between €100 and €500 but always €50 more than the animal’s market value. For cows, the reimbursement can reach €2,000.

The trouble is proving that a bear was directly responsible for the killing. In 2008, a bear attack apparently caused 28 sheep to go over a cliff and fall to their deaths, but compensation was only given for those animals bearing claw and tooth marks.

In July 2016, a similar incident occurred near the town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur, only this time 125 sheep of a 309-strong flock were killed. Dozens of farmers, hunters and local officials quickly mobilized to campaign for the ‘immediate removal’ of the bears.

Headline in The Telegraph about bear protests in the Pyreness and an interested reader │© jenny downing

Headline in the Telegraph about bear protests in the Pyrenees, and an interested reader │© Jenny Downing

Anti-bear protests are nothing new. At first, this sentiment manifested itself through slogans spray-painted on walls along rural highways, but things took a turn for the worse after the second wave of bears arrived from Slovenia.

Bear-tracking equipment was stolen, government officials were sent a video of a masked gunman warning the Minister of Ecology not to persist with the program, and the mayor of Arbas, a pro-bear campaigner, was forcibly detained and had his town hall vandalized. Conservationists also reported receiving death threats, and some were put under 24-hour police protection.

In June 2016, the first bear in a decade was released on the Spanish side of the mountains. Some small demonstrations were held in the run-up to the reintroduction but, thankfully, none turned violent.

A Great Pyrenees Sheep Dog and its flock │© Don DeBold

A Great Pyrenees Sheep Dog and its flock │© Don DeBold

The challenge for the government and the groups concerned with monitoring the health and expansion of the bear population is to convince farmers that there is enough space for productive coexistence. A simple program of compensation only reminds people of their losses.

Indeed, additional security measures thus far suggested, such as increasing the number of shepherds, sheep dogs and electric fences on the mountainside, place the onus on farmers to do more than what they have become accustomed to, making the presence of the bears seem like a burden and not an opportunity.

As important as sheep and cattle are to the local economy, so too can the bears one day pay their way. Over 150 people are currently employed in the conservation of just 30 bears. An expanded population and a wilder landscape could easily mean expanded possibilities for ecotourism.

Hikers in the Pyrenees │© akunamatata

Hikers in the Pyrenees │© akunamatata

The bear has always been an integral part of Pyrenean life: it appears in the myths and fables of local literature, the rituals of village festivals and in the carvings of the region’s architecture. What’s needed is a strategy that taps into this symbiosis of humans and bears and makes it profitable for all those who live in this wild and beautiful corner of Europe.