French Pyrenees: Advice as bears leave hibernation

Experts have issued guidelines on what to do if you come across a bear in the French Pyrenees, as authorities confirm that the bears in the region are now beginning to come out of hibernation this year.

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Claverina, one of the females being tracked by experts, has been confirmed as out of her winter hibernation, and appears to have crossed into the French Basque Country after spending some time in Navarra, Spain.

Authorities in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques said that because she has not yet given birth to any cubs, she “does not present any particular risk to people in nature”.

Most bears will smell or hear humans from a long distance, and leave long before you encounter them, experts said.

Yet, local environmental authority La Direction Régionale de l’Environnement, de l'Aménagement et du Logement (DREAL) Occitanie has issued guidelines on what to do in the very rare event that humans might come into contact with a bear.

  • People are warned to be especially careful if the bear appears to be injured, has cubs with them, was surprised while eating, or disturbed during their hibernation period.
  • Other advice includes making a little noise to alert the bear to your presence if they have not noticed already, and to avoid approaching them any closer, especially if you are within 50 metres of them.
  • Keep dogs on a lead, close, and as quiet as possible.
  • Keep very visibly calm, and walk away calmly, making sure not to run, or to cross any path that the bear might take to escape.

DREAL added that bears rearing up on their hind legs does not mean they will attack; this is more likely to be a sign of curiosity than aggression.

It also said that of 60 cases it had studied involving confrontations between bears and humans, the bear had run away 78% of the time, and had been indifferent 19% of the time.

Territorial discovery

Regarding the bears in the Pyrenees, a press release confirmed: “[Female bear] Claverina has visited the Navarra mountains in Spain during the spring, especially the warm slopes to the south of the French border.

“Her entry into France denotes wide movements of territorial discovery. The animal released in 2018 [Claverina] does not seem to be fixed on any particular area. Her last known position on April 25 2019 was near the commune of Alçay Alçabéhéty-Sunharette (Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Nouvelle-Aquitaine).”

In 2018, 40 brown bears were counted in the Pyrenees, including the two female bears introduced in Bearn in October (Claverina and Sorita).

Sorita is thought to still be in hibernation in the Haute-Pyrenees at this time

Both bears are tracked with GPS collars, so experts can follow their movements. Their locations are posted publicly, as accurately as possible, on the DREAL website.

Farmers and “scare tactics”

The presence of the bears is popular among wild bear advocates, but local farmers have said they are less than happy about the predators being released relatively close to their livestock.

In April last year, the minister for Agriculture confirmed that “scare tactics” would be launched in the Pyrenees to protect livestock from the bears.

The rules allow shepherds to either employ their own “scare measures” such as light or sound, to keep the bears at bay; or to employ qualified personnel, such as specially-trained predator hunters, to practice “reinforced” scare tactics, including the use of non-lethal bullets.

The minister also announced plans to “increase the financial means” of local farmers, which would allow them to build more cabins and barns in which they could take their herds to shelter overnight.

Yet, these measures have been criticised by wild bear advocates, who have condemned them as “inadequate, useless, counter-productive, and illegal”.

In a press release, the bear associations Ferus and Pays de l’Ours-ADET particularly condemned the use of “plastic bullets”.

They said: “[We remind you that] this is one of three mammal species in France at critical risk of extinction, and most farm areas at risk of predators have not put adapted protection in place [as a minimum].”

The activists say that farmers should use “protection dogs” in high enough numbers, rather than resorting to sound, light, or plastic bullet scare tactics. They are also critical of farmers who, they allege, “refuse” to put these protections in place, and prefer to adopt an “American-style ranching” practice in which animals roam free.

The NGOs also reminded people that the brown bear has specific protection at European level, and that this states that “scare tactics” should only be used on condition that “there is no other solution, and that [their use] would not damage the conservation of the species”.

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