Bear Bashing In The Béarn

PAU — Somewhere in the sparkling white mountains that rise up across the valley from Pau, in southwestern France, there are bears, though even the most intrepid backwoods adventurer would be hard pressed to ever spot one.

Researchers believe there are only about 40 of the omnivorous animals in the entire, 490-kilometer long range, on the French-Spanish border. And in the portion that includes Pau — the once sovereign state of Béarn in what is now France’s Pyrénées-Atlantiques department — there are just two, both of them males.

Little wonder the Pyrenean brown bears (Ursus arctos) all have individual names — cute and fuzzy ones like Pepito, Bulle and Plume. There was even a Balou, “godson” of the famous French actors Gérard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant, but he died in 2014, perhaps struck by lightning, or so the theory goes.

Scientists say there would need to be at least 80 of the creatures to make it a “viable” population, to give it a fighting chance, in other words, of avoiding eventual extinction. For obvious reasons, the situation is even more precarious for the two lonely Béarn bears, a father and son, apparently, and both decedents of Cannelle, France’s last indigenous female bear, killed illegally by a hunter in 2004. The other females present in the Pyrenees were either introduced or descend from bears introduced from Slovenia.

‘It’s a life of stress’

For the sake of bears’ reproductive necessities, French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot announced in late March that the state wants to trap two more Slovenian bears — females — and release them in the Béarn this coming autumn. “I don’t want to be the minister who stood by while this line [of bears] died out,” Hulot, a former wildlife presenter on television, told the daily Le Parisien.

I, for one, am hoping the match-making experiment works, that Néré and Cannellito — the two surviving Béarn boys — meet their future lady loves and do it like they do on the Discovery channel. May they live long and prosper, and populate their little neck of the woods with bouncing baby-bears! Because seriously, given just how demographically distressed the Pyrenean brown bear population is, who wouldn’t wish them well?

Quite a few people, it turns out. In the area’s mountain valleys, many sheep and cattle farmers strongly oppose the presence of bears. Some hunters, beekeepers and even hikers agree with them, and want the government to send the bears back from whence they came — to Slovenia’s Kocevje region. And as far as new introductions are concerned, “pas question!” (no way), the “anti-ours” (anti-bear) crowd insists.

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“Wild animals and domestic animals don’t mix. It doesn’t work. We don’t want that,” Patrice Marie, a middle-aged shepherd from the Vercors area, in the foothills of the Alps, told me in the parking lot of the Pau train station. “We defend our right to live off the work we do, and not be attacked, not be mistreated. It’s like if someone goes to work every day and people keep lighting his car on fire. That’s wrong. The people who do that are criminals. For us, the wild animals are the criminals.”

Never mind that where Marie lives, in the southeastern Drôme department, there are no bears. But there are wolves. And it’s “the same thing,” the sparkly-eyed shepherd, with his crooked nose, friendly demeanour and black beret, insisted. “For us it’s hell,” he said. “We’re forced to watch our animals 24/7. We don’t sleep any more. It’s a life of stress. We have to have guard dogs. We need to be armed. It’s not a pleasant life. We’re at war when it comes to these wild animals.”

All fired up

Marie was one of an estimated 1,200 people — along with at least 100 sheep, goats and cows, a couple of horses and several large tractors — who made their way earlier this week to Pau, the administrative capital of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, to make their voices heard and tell Mr. Hulot to take his bear-introduction plan and shove it.

Carrying signs, walking sticks and cowbells, the demonstrators snaked their way through the hilltop city, ably shepherding their livestock from the train station, down below, to the entrance of the downtown préfecture, the departmental administrative offices. There they unrolled a huge bail of hay, which the animals munched on while organizers gave a series of fiery speeches lambasting Hulot and his “misguided” environmental initiative. And as a final touch, someone lit the half-eaten hay on fire.

Facing the stage, front and center, was lawmaker and former presidential candidate Jean Lassalle, wearing a blue suit and customary black beret. I couldn’t help noticing that this fly was wide open, and for a moment I considered tell him so, but then realized I have no idea how to say “examine your zipper” in French.

The atmosphere was convivial, a boisterous but friendly celebration of paysan pride. But toward the end, as the rhetoric heated up to a fevered pitch — one speaker likened the government’s reintroduction program to “Jurassic Park” — it started to seem just a wee-bit over the top. All this hoo-ha over a plan to plant just two bears in an area covering thousands of square kilometers.

But what do I know? I live in a city, where I’m guaranteed not to have any unpleasant encounters with the wild animals. I hail from a country, the United States, with tens of thousands of bears, and grew up in a state, California, that features a grizzly bear (though they no longer exist there) on its flag. The Béarn flag, I couldn’t help noticing, has a pair of cows on it.

Worlds apart

No one I spoke to in Pau has had any ill-fated run-ins with bears either, which isn’t surprising. There are only 40 of them after all. Javier Bernal, a young cattle farmer, came all the way from the Broto valley, across the mountains in Spain, to show “solidarity” with his “French comrades.” He hasn’t dealt with any bear attacks “yet,” he told me. “Because in our area there aren’t any.” One never knows, though. Perhaps the Béarn bears will mate, as Nicolas Hulot is hoping, and mount an eventual cross-border invasion.

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Still, there have been attacks elsewhere in the Pyrenees. Bears like to eat berries, honey and insects, but they’ll also go after a sheep if they’re hungry enough. And sheep scare easily, with potentially fatal consequences given the tricky mountain topography. Last summer, a bear attack along the border caused more than 200 panicked sheep to plunge off a cliff. Farmers aren’t allowed to retaliate. Hunting bears is illegal in France. But the French state does offer compensation for lost animals.

Conservationists say the payouts are generous. Farmers say the paperwork required to qualify for compensation is cumbersome. The differences of opinion, again, stem from differing perspectives — from the enormous social, cultural and economic gulf that exists between the decision makers in Paris, the stylish and speedy capital, and the salt-of-the-earth farmers and villagers in France’s rough-and-tumble backcountry.

Yelling into the microphone at an ear-spitting volume, cow bells clanging in the background, Patrice Marie took the stage toward the end of the Pau demonstration to spell out his vision of a grand, cross-country march on Paris — perhaps with participants from Spain, Italy and Germany. “We’ll tell the whole country who we are, that we’re proud people, alive and well, the descendents of defenders of the mountain territories.”

Even if Marie’s march does get off the ground, I don’t expect there’ll be “millions,” as he envisions. And I doubt many (or any) Germans or Italians will show up. To me it’s all so obviously far fetched. But as I turned away from the stage, I caught the eye of another middle aged, beret-wearing man. Visibly moved by Marie’s speech, his eyes moist with tears, the man gave me a slightly embarrassed half-smile. I immediately responded in kind, as if to say, “I understand.” Except I don’t. Not really anyway.

By Benjamin Witte (benjawitte@gmail.com)

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