Wolves on rise in France as bears wreak mountain havoc

Wolf numbers are on the rise in France, it has been confirmed, in the same week as farmers have reported a record number of livestock deaths linked to mountain bears.

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There are now an estimated 530 adult wild wolves in France, mainly found in the departments of the Doubs and the Jura.

The Jura authorities confirmed the wolves’ presence on August 5, while the wolf monitoring network Réseau Loup Lynx, which “seeks to collect data on the presence of major predators”, said it had “seen videos of a male wolf chasing a rodent in the commune of Chaux-Neuve (Doubs)”.

A permanent zone for the species has now been established. It is named the “Zone du Marchairuz”, after the 1,447 metre-high mountain of the same name, in Switzerland. The zone extends across the Doubs, Jura, and the Swiss canton of Vaud.

The species is being monitored by automatic cameras and other strategies, managed by wild animal agency l'Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage (ONCFS), and department group La Direction Départementale des Territoires.

From wolves to bears

Further south, in the Ariège Pyrenees, farmers have reported a record number of livestock deaths linked to wild bears, prompting protests.

The ONCFS dealt with 214 cases concerning compensation for bear attacks between January 1 and July 31 this year, compared to 167 cases for the same time period last year.

According to 2019 figures from the Ariège authorities - published by the commune of Foix on August 1 - overall, bears either killed, injured or damaged 638 sheep, six cattle, eight horses and 33 beehives.

Of these incidents, 90% happened in the Ariège. Since 2019, the department reported the death of 460 ewes - three times’ the number killed in 2018.

Today, farmers and several political representatives are travelling to the authorities in Toulouse to demand increased control, management of bears in the Pyrenees. Some are demanding that the animal be removed from the mountains completely.

Campsite fears

The news also comes in the same week as two hikers in the Pyrenees fled their campsite in the middle of the night after fearing that a bear was close by.

Experienced hikers Laurent and Frédéric were eating dinner at their mountain camp on Sunday August 4 - several kilometres above the village of Germ, in the Hautes-Pyrénées - when they heard repeated roars and growls.

Unable to see anything due to the dark, but fearing they could be in danger - and estimating that the roars were just 50 metres away and coming closer - the two left their campsite immediately, leaving everything behind.

After an hour of running and walking, they arrived in Germ, and spent the night in a chapel. The next morning, they went back to the campsite to pick up their belongings - with no sign of a bear.

Yet, speaking to local news source France3, they said: “We suddenly heard terrible, terrifying roars. We asked ourselves if it was real, if we had really heard it or dreamed it, and then we got up and asked ourselves, what should we do? We ran as soon as we heard the third roar...It felt very close. It practically shook your whole body and lasted for two to three seconds. We could feel it there.

“We were afraid, and left everything, put on shoes without socks, and ran.”

Mountain bears

Bears have been present in the Pyrenees for hundreds of thousands of years, but were almost hunted to extinction in the Middle Ages.

It has been illegal to hunt bears in France since 1962, and since 1979, brown bears have been considered an official protected species. Since 1990, the government has attempted to re-introduce the animals in the region, with a “bear plan” brought in to protect the species, in 2018.

Now, there are around 100 bears in the area, but their presence has always been controversial among farmers, who complain that the risks and damages to their livelihood are too high.

While the ONCFS works to increase biodiversity, it has currently stopped carrying out certain data collection on bears and damage to livestock in some areas, after its agents allegedly received threats from some local farmers, and one agent’s car was set alight.

Some anti-bear groups have started using “fear tactics” on the animals, to try to scare them away from livestock, but pro-bear campaigners say that it is up to the farmers to protect their livestock using different methods.

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