A scheme to reintroduce brown bears to the Pyrenees is showing signs of success, with 70 individuals identified in 2021, the highest number for a century.
The population has increased from 52 in 2018, according to figures produced by the cross-border group that monitors the bears in France and Spain, with half the creatures living in the Catalan Pyrenean regions of Vall d’Aran, Pallars Sobirà and Alta Ribagorça. Overall, the population is thinly spread over an area of 6,500 sq km.
The study identified 34 females, 32 males and four others whose gender was not determined, with 15 pups born over the course of last year. There have been a 114 newborns since the scheme was launched in 1996.
The brown bear was near extinct in the Pyrenees when three bears from Slovenia were introduced 26 years ago. The last native specimen was shot in 2004 and two years later four females were introduced, also from Slovenia.
Up until 2016, all the cubs born since 1997 could be traced back to Pyros, a Slovenian male bear. Another male, nicknamed Goiat (the lad), introduced from Slovenia in 2016, was accused last year of killing livestock in the region. A ram, four goats and a sheep were killed in separate attacks last autumn in the Vall d’Aran.
Goiat had already acquired notoriety across the border in France where farmers were calling for his removal. He is now known to be in Catalonia where he fathered at least one cub last year.
The repopulation scheme was opposed by farmers from the start, even though brown bears’ diet is largely vegetarian and they rarely kill for food.
There was a similar outcry last year when the Spanish government banned the hunting of wolves in the north-western regions of Castilla y León and Galicia, where they are most populous. Farmers in the region say wolves kill hundreds of their livestock every year, although they can claim compensation for any animal killed.
The EU-backed Franco-Spanish LoupO project was established in 2020 to coordinate the monitoring of the brown bear and wolf populations in the Pyrenees.
This article by Stephen Burgen was first published by The Guardian on 4 April 2022. Lead Image: Brown bears were near extinct in the Pyrenees until the scheme introduced new animals to the region from Slovenia in 1996. Photograph: Stefan Korshak/EPA.
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