The brown bear population in the Pyrénées continues to grow, the latest figures show.
The most recent count by the Office français de la biodiversité (OFB), and its Haute-Garonne-based ‘brown bear team’, found that at the end of the 2022-2023 hibernation period, there were 76, including 35 males and 39 females, plus two whose sex has yet to be determined.
The bears live across the mountain range, over an expanse of 5,700 kilometres squared. Experts estimate that there are:
Six in the western Pyrénées (Béarn, Navarre, Aragon)
Sixty-nine in the central Pyrénées (Comminges region in Haute-Garonne, Couserans in Ariège, the Val d’Aran, Catalonia, Andorra, Aude, and the Pyrénées-Orientales)
One male, an older bear named ‘Néré’, travels between these two regions
One female bear was found dead in 2022, having succumbed to a bear bite, perhaps due to a fight with a male.
Bear cub watch
At least eight of the female bears had a cub in 2022, with a minimum of 13 born, the OFB said.
The office has named some of those it has identified and continued to track:
Callisto had one cub, whose father is Pépite
Gaïa: Two cubs, father Boet
Aran: Two cubs including one male, father Sardo
Bambou: Two female cubs, father Sardo
Boavi: One male cub, father Esmolet
Plume: One male cub, father Pompon
Réglisse: Two cubs including a female, father Pépite
Carline: Two cubs, father Flocon.
However, five cubs from previous years are missing (perhaps dead) as they were not seen in 2021 or 2022. Seven others are still thought to be alive, as they were seen in 2021. In 2023, around 15 females are expected to have a cub.
Good population ‘rhythm’
Brown bears are protected by a 1992 European Union directive, which requires France to maintain a viable bear population. Some scientists say that a ‘viable’ population means at least 150 bears.
These bears were reintroduced into the Pyrénées region in 1996. They came from Slovenia.
In its latest document, the OFB said: “We are seeing slightly slower progress than in previous years, but the population is continuing to develop at a good rhythm.”
The office said the bears were continuing to grow by around 11% per year.
The bears are monitored by the 15-strong team, plus 450 volunteers, who help to count them via tracks, observations, and fur findings, plus videos and photos from around 60 automatic cameras attached to trees.
Italian death reignites tense debate
While considered good news for biodiversity, the bear update has been eclipsed in recent days by the death of a 26-year-old in the northern Trentino region.
Andrea Papi, who was jogging in the forest, is thought to have been killed by a brown bear.
The death has increased tensions on the subject of bears in the Pyrénées, to which some farmers and locals are opposed.
After the death, the French heritage association, L’Association de sauvegarde du patrimoine d'Ariège-Pyrénées, which is made up mainly of sheep farmers, said in a statement: “It's a fact. Reintroducing bears kills. Residents, holidaymakers, hikers, hunters, farmers, elected representatives…we must all act! Everything must change.”
The group is, along with other anti-bear campaigners, calling for “the bear project to be withdrawn from the irresponsible people who have imposed it in the Pyrénées, against the opinion of mountain users”.
However, in a press release, the bear defence association le Pays de l'ours - Adet said that it was “genuinely emotional about this tragedy” because “this rare event is the first of its kind in south-western Europe for many decades".
Another environmental collective, Cap-Ours, said that “the [ongoing] investigation, involving many specialists, will perhaps enable us to unravel how this attack happened”.
The advocates said that it was important that the reason for the bear’s behaviour was considered, and that more prevention measures should be put in place to prevent another similar tragedy.
The bear that killed the man is now scheduled for slaughter, as are other ‘problem’ animals that are thought to have attacked livestock repeatedly.
Thierry Hegay, the new ‘bear prefect’ who was appointed in November 2022 in the Pyrénées, is set to consider these conflicting arguments in a bid to renew dialogue and work with both pro- and anti-bear campaigners.
The government has said that “he is continuing his consultations, which should lead to a new roadmap in the spring”.
Are brown beats in the Pyrénées dangerous?
If they charge or attack, yes. They can run at speeds of up to 55 km/h. However, the risk of coming into contact with a brown bear in the Pyrénées is still extremely small. Even if you do come across one, the risk of injury or death is even smaller.
Mr Papi’s death was the first reported in 150 years in Italy. In France, no deaths or serious injuries have been reported since the bears’ reintroduction in 1996. In fact, there is no documented case of a person being killed by a bear in France in the entire second half of the 20th century, or in the 21st.
Patrick Leyrissoux, vice-president and bear coordinator at the Ferus association, told Le Journal Toulousain: “The most severe incident we’ve seen is that one bear knocked over a hunter. In comparison, cows have injured 10 hikers and killed one, in only the last 12 years.
“In 80% of cases, the bears flee. The rest of the time, they’re indifferent [to humans]. In only 3% of cases, they are aggressive, and it’s always female bears accompanied by cubs.”
Notable non-fatal incidents include one bear, Melba, who charged at a hunter, who then killed her. In 1998, another bear, Ziva, charged at two technicians from the ‘mountain bear team’ to intimidate them.
What should I do if I come across a Pyrénées bear?
You may avoid coming across a bear at all if you make some noise as you walk.
“Encounters often take place with people who are walking alone, in silence, and in windy conditions [that obscure the noise of their movement],” said Mr Leyrissoux.
If you do meet a bear, he had the following advice:
Avoid getting close if you spot it at a distance
Only observe it, and photograph it, from far away
If you accidentally get close, back away slowly. Avoid sudden movements and stay facing the animal
Do not turn and run, as this could prompt the bear to charge
Members of the public are banned from feeding the bears, and advised not to publicise the animals’ location on social media, to avoid them from becoming too familiar with humans.