Brown bears in the Pyrenees
The brown bear in the Pyrenees is a subject that stirs up strong emotions. The reintroduction of this shy animal has not been welcomed by everybody, as witnessed by the spray painted declarations of 'Non aux Ours' that can be seen on random sections of tarmac and on building walls in the central French Pyrenees.
So what's the story?
There have always been bears (Latin name Ursus arctos) in mountains that form the natural border between France and Spain.
In days gone by, the bear population was widespread and plentiful with around 150 bears thought to inhabit the Pyrenees in the early 1900s.
Les Montreurs d'Ours
Then in the late 19th century in the Couserans area of the Ariege Pyrenees, local individuals took to capturing young bears and training them to perform for a paying public.
Glimpsing a brown bear in the wild is a thrill you won't forget, says Penny Walker. This sustainable adventure gives you a chance.
It was seen as a lucrative way to make a living and indeed these 'montreur d'ours' travelled far and wide with their performing bears.
Some even travelled as far afield as north and south America and were never again to return home to the mountains of the Pyrenees.
However, because the mother bears were killed in order to take the cub, the number of bears in the Pyrenees was badly affected by this practice.
However, the programme was met with fierce resistance in the central French Pyrenees, the site of the first reintroductions. Farmers in particular were outraged at the plan, which they saw as a direct threat to their livestock.
Much of their attitude, however, was down to lack of knowledge about the bears' behaviour. Bears are omnivores, surviving mainly off wild fruit, nuts, fresh grass shoots – and occasionally small, dead animals. A bear will only kill if there is a real shortage of food in its territory.
A generous financial package was put in place to compensate farmers for livestock losses that could be proved to have been the result of a bear's actions. This went some small way to appeasing their concerns.
Alas, the last Pyrenean brown bear – a female called Cannelle – was shot by a hunter in 2004. To make matters worse, the reintroduced brown bears failed to thrive as expected.
The arrival of Goiat
Pyros has dominated the population of brown bears here for 20 years and is thought to have fathered around 75 per cent of the current Pyrenean bear population. However, he is now 27 years old and should be starting to lose some of his virility.
In addition, the inevitable inbreeding is bound to cause health issues further down the line. The experts realise that it is essential to dilute the bears' gene pool in order to safeguard the developing population of brown bears in the Pyrenees.
With this in mind, in 2016, a 10-year old male, named Goiat (it means 'bachelor' or 'young man' in the local Catalan dialect) was captured in the wild woods of Slovenia and brought to the Pyrenees.
He was released in the Alt Pirineu Natural Park on the Spanish side of the central Pyrenees, an expansive, wild and diverse protected environment where he is expected to thrive.
Goiat has been fitted with a GPS collar that will enable conservationists to track his movements for a year or two before the batteries expire.
It is hoped that he has been able to mate with one of the females in the area and that cubs will have been born over the winter.
The brown bear in the Pyrenees today
In 2014, an EU funded project called PirosLIFE+ was launched with a budget of €2.4m. The funds are being used for education projects to help local people learn about how they can happily coexist with the bears.
Release of Pyros on 2 May 1997 in Melles. Pays de l'ours Adet
On both the Spanish and the French sides of the central Pyrenees there are dedicated teams who employ various techniques to track the bears and monitor their movements.
Small sections of barbed wire are placed on strategic trees where the bears are known to rub. The barbed wire collects fur that can be sent off for DNA analysis so as to identify the bears in that area.
Motion detecting video cameras and photo traps are also strapped to trees in areas that the bears are known to frequent. One of the highlights of any bear enthusiasts' day is the notification that new footage from these cameras has been uploaded to the ONCFS channel on Youtube!
Sustainable wildlife tourism
There is something about the bears that captures your imagination, and the authorities are starting to recognise the tourism potential that the bears' increasing numbers can bring to the Pyrenees. It's not surprising that over the past few years there has been a development in sustainable wildlife tourism centred around these animals.
The authorities are keen to educate the general public and to raise awareness of the life of the brown bear here. To this end, on both the French and Spanish sides of the Pyrenees, specific local experts are now licensed to accompany members of the public into areas of the bears' territory.
The French Pays de l'Ours - ADET association is based in Arbas in the French Pyrenees, the site of the release of the first bears in the French Pyrenees. In spring 2017, they launched a new initiative in which members of the public can be involved in the collection of scientific data used in monitoring and tracking the brown bear.
Above: bear fur caught on barbed wire; fur collecting
You'll be accompanied by a bear expert on a hike up into the bears' territory in the mountains where you'll check the barbed wire fur traps and collect any fur left behind for potential DNA analysis. You'll also examine footage from the video and photo apparatus – and, with a bit of luck, see a bear in the exact same spot on which you are standing!
The outing is followed up by emails that will tell you which bear you had been tracking. You'll also be sent any photos that were captured on the cameras that you examined.
This personal connection with a named bear really does bring the whole experience to life!
In Spain, the bear tracking experience is unique, a total and thought-provoking immersion into the environment of the brown bear.
Although this is most definitely not a safari, the experts here spend their days tracking and monitoring the bears and have a good idea of their movements. So this adventure is probably the best chance anybody will have of spotting a brown bear in the wild.
Wildlife enthusiasts and photographers can spend up to five nights under canvas up in the high mountains of the bears' territory. It's always a carefully chosen spot which affords a good view of the mountainsides on which the bears are known to graze, but upwind of the animals so that they remain oblivious to your presence. This has to be the overriding objective if their behaviour is not to be affected.
From your mountain-top camp you will be glued to your binoculars at dusk and at dawn when the bears are at their most active. You may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this amazing animal – which, I promise you, will be just the biggest thrill!
One thing is for sure: the brown bears in the Pyrenees are here to stay. Through a process of education and awareness, the people – and especially farmers – in the Pyrenees are realising that peaceful coexistence with the bear is possible and indeed desirable for all concerned.
The Adventure Creators are working closely with both the French and Spanish authorities and bear experts to offer sustainable bear tracking adventures to anybody interested in wildlife and conservation in this beautiful part of the world.
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Penny Walker is the founder of The Adventure Creators, a niche tour operator based in the French Pyrenees. She is passionate about the wild and beautiful mountain environment of the Pyrenees, its flora and fauna as well as its culture, heritage and especially its gastronomy! She's also a passionate outdoors person who can be found more often than not hiking in the mountains or out on her road or mountain bike.
Green Adventures June 2017
Thankfully, by the early 20th century – and particularly following World War I – the number of 'montreur d'ours' saw a dramatic reduction. But it wasn't until the early 21st century that the last of them ceased their trade.
During the 20th century, the number of bears in the Pyrenees was badly affected. Hunting, the destruction of the bears' habitat through the creation of roads in the area, and increased mining up in the mountains – which disrupted their breeding patterns – all contributed to this decline.
By the mid 1950s, only 70 native Pyrenean brown bears were left, and by the 1990s their numbers were at dangerously low levels.
The reintroduction programme
In 1996, thanks to the financial support of the EU, France was able to commence a reintroduction programme in an attempt to save the native population of Pyrenean brown bears. It was hoped that the introduction of a handful of the same species of brown bears brought down from Slovenia would strengthen the bloodline.
With this in mind, four female brown bears and a powerhouse of a male called Pyros were brought down from Slovenia and released into the central French Pyrenees
One of the programme's initiatives is to create 'shepherding schools' in which apprentice shepherds learn all about the bears' behaviour – and, in particular, the techniques they can use to prevent a bear attack on their flock.
Up in the mountains in the summer months it's the fearsome Patou dog, a huge white beast with a menacing bark, that is charged with warding off any potential bear attack. Some of the EU funds are being used to pay for the food and infrastructure required to maintain 14 Patou for two years.
In addition, new grazing lands have been leased by the project which will enable the grouping of flocks and the pooling of resources. This has meant a big change to the traditional shepherds' working practices, which has required some adaptation on their part.
Tracking the bears in the Pyrenees
In 2016, 10 bear cubs were born in the central Pyrenees – bringing the total population to 39. It is not yet known how many cubs were born over the 2016/17 winter, but the experts remain optimistic that Goiat will have done his work.