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Battling time–and local resistance–to save France’s brown bears

By Liza Gross Pyrénées Mountains, France–“Voila! Hvala!” exclaims Pierre-Yves Quenette, standing in a snowy clearing in the forests outside of Pyrénées National Park. He’s reading a message on his cell phone. Hvala, a 200-pound brown bear with two cubs, has been found. Quenette, director of a French government team trying to restore the brown bear...

By Liza Gross

Pyrénées Mountains, France–“Voila! Hvala!” exclaims Pierre-Yves Quenette, standing in a snowy clearing in the forests outside of Pyrénées National Park. He’s reading a message on his cell phone. Hvala, a 200-pound brown bear with two cubs, has been found.

Quenette, director of a French government team trying to restore the brown bear in the Pyrénées, isn’t used to good news. His bears have been shot, crushed by cliff falls, and run over by cars.

So his joy is understandable, despite his struggling English and my all-but-nonexistent French. He shows me the message: Hvala dans vallon de Fos.

Hvala had been missing for a week. But now, he translates for me, she’s in the valley of Fos, a village just five miles from our position–and just a few miles from Spain, where she’s wanted for biting a boar hunter in the foot.

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Hvala and her cubs.

Photo copyright Conselh General d’Aran

Before she went missing, Hvala’s radio transmitter placed her very near the border, Quenette says, pointing toward the forbidding peaks rising above us to the west. When he lost her signal, he thought–hoped–it meant she had crossed into Spain, beyond the range of their detectors.

The alternative–that Hvala was now another casualty in an embattled population on the verge of extinction–was too much to contemplate.

Cousin of North America’s grizzly

The European brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos), cousin of North America’s grizzly, once thrived in the forested landscapes of the European continent. Ongoing habitat destruction and relentless hunting since the mid-1800s reduced the bear to fragmented populations, with strongholds in Russia, Scandinavia, Romania, and Slovenia.

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Bears vanished from the French countryside during the 1900s, finding refuge only on the rugged slopes of the Pyrénées Mountains, a natural border between Spain and France. But the refuge proved short-lived. By 1995, only five bears–including just one female–remained in the western part of the range.

Hoping to reverse this drastic decline, the French government relocated three bears from Slovenia in 1996 and 1997 to the Central Pyrénées, which had lost its native bears by the early ’90s. Five more were released in 2006.

Quenette–who’d been studying the snowshoe hare in Canada–joined the government’s efforts in 1996. An affable man with a gentle manner, Quenette soon discovered that his training as a biologist left him ill-prepared for the persistent and sometimes violent opposition to the brown bear.

Beyond the need to cope with the deep-seated local resistance, the job requires uncommon stamina. In 2006 Quenette drove 20 hours from his research station outside Saint Gaudens to Slovenia to retrieve a female named Palouma who had just left her den. The team arrived in early afternoon and found her within hours.

Once Palouma was safely ensconced in the hay-lined cage in the van, Quenette headed back to France. “For 50 hours, we didn’t sleep,” he says in heavily accented English. Tragically, Palouma was found at the bottom of a cliff later that year.

We’re heading out to the mountains on a chilly May morning to check on Quenette’s ursine charges for the first time since the bears left their winter dens. Males venture out first, usually in mid-March; females wait until April.

Contrary to popular belief, bears occasionally leave their dens, perhaps to catch a bit of sun. The signals from one male’s telemetry device–implanted in the abdominal cavity to avoid mishaps with collars–suggested he took a hulking, lazy step, then fell prostrate, repeating the sequence several times, like a parody of a Tibetan Buddhist on pilgrimage to Jokhang Temple.

As we enter the heart of brown bear country, wending our way through the serpentine back roads and up some of the toughest ascents in the Tour de France, Quenette describes his ongoing struggle to convince local sheep farmers and hunters to accept the brown bear.

Although the new population in the Central Pyrénées began to grow, the bear team wanted to introduce the Slovenian bears into the Western Pyrénées, to reinforce the native population. “But each time we tried,” Quenette says, “political reasons prevented us from doing so.” Then in 2004, the western population suffered a fatal blow: its last female, Cannelle, was killed by a hunter while defending her cubs. She had many reproductive years ahead of her.

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Cannelle with one of her cubs.

Photo copyright Camarra ONCFS-ETO

The government-run bear team works with an association of 21 villages, each with a say in how, and whether, the reintroduction will proceed. When the French Minister of Ecology proposed a long-range plan to release bears in both the western and central part of the range, association members in the west took it as a convenient pretext to withdraw their earlier, reluctant support. “And for now,” notes Quenette, “they don’t speak anymore about the bear.”

The association received millions of euros from the French state and European Union to implement the bear restoration program, Quenette says, “and the bear disappeared.”

Anti-bear sentiment pervades the central range as well. Quenette regularly runs up against the obstructions of a small but highly organized group of farmers and sheep breeders who vehemently opposed efforts to restore the brown bear, “as soon as the idea was first raised.” The French government subsidizes the construction of electric fences and training of guard dogs to protect flocks. But many farmers resist these efforts, Quenette explains. “It would mean accepting the bear.”

“Bear take at most 250 sheep a year, out of over 600,000 in the Pyrénées.”

Farmers often blame the bear for sheep casualties, so Quenette analyzed 88 samples of bear scat for evidence of sheep. He found evidence of domestic livestock in just seven. Bear take at most 250 sheep a year, out of over 600,000 in the Pyrénées, he says. And even though the government compensates farmers for lost sheep, “no amount of money can replace an animal taken by a bear. It’s always a trauma.”

On those occasions when farmers agree to take protective measures, they often end up changing their minds after a visit from local opposition leaders. “The leaders tell them that if they accept bear prevention, they are traitors,” says Quenette.

Against this backdrop, it took ten years to win enough support for the first reintroduction, near the tiny village of Melles, just a few miles from Hvala’s last location, and ten more for the second, when five Slovenian bears were released near Arbas and other villages in the Central Pyrénées. That’s when the real trouble started.

Protesters stole bear-tracking equipment, sent government officials a menacing video with a masked gunman warning the French minister of ecology not to release bears “or there will be big trouble,” vandalized Arbas’ town hall and forcibly detained its mayor, an ardent supporter of the reintroduction and president of a regional bear conservation group.

Over the two years Quenette worked to safeguard the five bears, he endured death threats and reluctantly accepted police surveillance of his house to protect his wife and two young children.

“We learned that five bears at once, though technically possible, was too much politically,” Quenette says. His research shows that the Western Pyrénées population needs a minimum of 12 more bears, mostly females, to survive.

Quenette and his colleagues had originally feared that introducing females into the western range would be futile, thinking that humans had wiped out the population. But after analyzing their demographic data, they came to suspect that the bears’ own behavior accounted for the population’s dismal growth rate. Females caring for cubs shun the advances of male suitors, who typically resort to infanticide to make the female receptive. With such a small population, this natural behavior can quickly spell disaster.

Female bears needed

What the western population needs is females, as soon as possible. But when, where, and how many bears Quenette can release remains a political question. The French government–legally required to restore a viable brown bear population within this human-dominated landscape–must resolve these questions by the end of May, the deadline for the next five-year bear conservation plan.

We stop at the village of Saint Lary, just outside the forest, to meet up with Philippe Labal, a technician with the national forest service who maintains the cameras and “hair traps” scattered around the forest to monitor the bears. The mayor of this picturesque mountain town, population 157, opposes the reintroduction.

As we drive deeper into the forest, gaining elevation, thick stands of beech yield to conifers. A heavy snowstorm prevented a planned visit last week, and left a tangled web of fallen trees blocking the road. We leave the cars behind and set out on foot, clambering up the muddy hillside to push through the dense patchwork of slick branches strewn before us.

Complicated feelings

We slip and stumble over rocks hidden just beneath the snow-packed road. Quenette explains the complicated feelings people here have about the bear. One day as he was talking with a sheep breeder about the bear, they saw one amble across the horizon. “I don’t like him,” the man said, “but he’s a beautiful animal.”

Suddenly the bear maundered toward the flock. The man’s dog ran between the bear and the sheep, then bolted toward them–with the bear in hot pursuit. The bear stopped before reaching the men, and kept his eye on the dog for a good long time before it finally left. “We were a little stressed when we saw that bear running toward us,” Quenette says with characteristic understatement.

People resist the team’s reintroduction efforts in part, Quenette says, because they figure the bear was already gone, so why bring it back? The latest census counted 17 bears in the Pyrénées, the bulk of them living in the central range.

Quenette spends a lot of his time trying to help people find a way to live with brown bears. He advises hikers to make noise to alert the bear to their presence. “But they don’t accept this. People say, ‘When we go in the wild we want to be quiet and observe the animals.’ ” He shrugs a bit wearily.

“Some [people] are not willing to make any changes to their habits to accommodate the bear.”

Quenette’s team also works with hunters to help them avoid areas the bears pass through, for their own protection. “And in most cases, they accept this. But some are not willing to make any changes to their habits to accommodate the bear.”

Hunters killed one Slovenian transplant (named Mellba) in 1997, the year after she was released. And though her cubs survived the incident, Quenette fears that one of her cubs has since fallen victim to foul play. Boutxy regularly ran into trouble, stealing honey, killing sheep, and otherwise making his presence known. But since last June, there’s been no more damage, no tracks, no hair, nothing. Quenette suspects poaching.

We reach the first hair trap, barbed wire strung around a ring of trees, the wire just high enough for bears to crawl under and leave a few coveted hairs on their way to a putrid stew of blood and fermented fish hanging from a tree inside the wire.

What I find repulsive proves a powerful bear attractor. When the bear reaches for the stuff, safely encased in a plastic jug, a motion-sensitive camera mounted on an adjacent tree snaps a picture, which is relayed to a computer in Quenette’s office. As a reward, the bear gets to feast on a bag of corn hanging just above the fetid lure.

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A mixture of blood and fermented fish hangs beneath a bag of dried corn, to reward the curious bear.

Photo by Liza Gross

Labal, the forest service technician, fiddles with the camera equipment, then tops off the bait, and douses the tree with turpentine, which tickles a bear’s highly sensitive nose. He shows me deep gouges on the tree, likely made as the bear went after the bait.

Quenette slides a white envelope under the barbed wire, searching for traces of hair–its DNA holding the key to the sex, age, and number of bears in the area.

Every ten days one of the 200 volunteers with the Brown Bear Network checks on the hair traps and scours the ground for scat, paw prints, and other signs of bear. Today, Quenette finds only two hairs. One–thin, straight, and black–is likely a wild boar. But the other is dark, barely an inch long, with a wavy curl, suggesting bear. It’s not enough for a proper genetic analysis, but Quenette, wearing gloves to make sure his own DNA doesn’t contaminate the sample, carefully places the hair inside a bag.

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Quenette shows his student, Geoffrey Darmani, how to handle bear hair

Photo by Liza Gross

When a Slovenian immigrant enters his new home in the Pyrénées, he ventures far and wide, covering great distances with no apparent pattern, as if scouting out the best digs. But he gradually settles into a pattern, and when he happens upon an area he’s visited before, he tends to move less.

Male bears establishing their home ranges in Slovenia exhibit the same pattern. Amazingly, Quenette says, when the Slovenian immigrants finally settled in their new home, they chose the same place as the last bear that lived in the Central Pyrénées.

Such evidence, says Quenette, puts the lie to the local myth that Slovenian bears are not “good bears” and don’t act like the Pyrenean brown bear.

Quenette can rattle off all the usual reasons for preserving this endangered predator: Protecting the wide-ranging bear protects all the flora and fauna that inhabit the mountains. As a signatory to the European Union “Natura 2000” initiative to preserve biodiversity, France is legally bound to bear restoration. “And if we don’t preserve the brown bear here, how can we tell people in Africa to preserve their endangered wildlife?”

But for the resolute biologist struggling to save this vanishing species, against all odds, the explanation for why we need bears couldn’t be simpler.

“It’s our responsibility to preserve the brown bear,” he declares, “because it is alive, a rare, unique species, a product of evolution.”

Liza-Gross.jpg

Liza Gross is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area and a staff editor at the open-access biomedical journal PLoS Biology. She writes about wildlife, ecology, conservation, environmental health, and science policy. Her stories have appeared in High Country News, Sierra, Tikkun, PLoS Biology, and Wines & Vines.

 

All blog posts by Liza Gross.

 

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David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn