photo: Het Parool, Herders Zijn de Beren Beu”, by Adam Nossiter, July 28, 2018, pgs 20-21
During my visit to the Fete de la Transhumance, the issue of new predators was being highly communicated to the public. An urgent issue, shepherds are reconsidering their profession, or demanding changes be made before protected invasive and re-introduced species decimate their herds. During talks with representatives of Le Maison de la Transhumance, an organization for the communication and interpretation of mediterranean pastoral cultures, ‘coupled with the wolf, the shepherd is having a terrible time carrying on his practice. For a dozen years, on the French side of the Alps, mountain breeders and transhumants have to face a new situation that complicates terribly (and even questions) their role and work: the presence of the large canid that takes from the wild and domestic fauna, ie; the wolf.’
‘The return of this incredible predator prompts passionate reactions and talks as well as clear positions depending on whether or not the wolf is wanted in the Alps. The presence of a pack of wolves on a territory represents a strong structural constraint for shepherds. If the breeder does not want to suffer huge losses, it immediately results in many and deep changes in pastoral practices: the almost ongoing presence of the shepherd (or shepherd assistant), regrouping the herd at night in a protection park, located if possible, as near to the cabin, and the reintroduction of protection dogs (mostly Montagne des Pyrenees or Patou breeds). Reintroducing these protection dogs in the herds poses cohabitation issues with hikers, with many accidents and complaints. Communication actions to the general public, as well as breeders and shepherd training in the use of these dogs are now essential.’
The far reaching consequences of invasive predators and the debate surrounding what to do, is making international headlines. For me, I side with the shepherds, but it is fascinating to consider what happens when the “Other” comes into a territory, whether it be animal or human. What are the reactions, and could they be indicative of a larger dialogue about “invasives’ in general…. people from other countries, nationalism, and the fear of change?
Below I transcribe and edit from the full page spread in Het Parool, about the French Pyrenees Shepherd’s plight with the new invasive bear brought in from Slovenia. The article was originally in the New York Times, and written by Adam Nossiter, nytimes.com/by/adam-nossiter, July 23,2018.
Shepherds are tired of the Bear
Hidden by the omnipresent fog or glimpsed only from a distance, the predatory bear has driven some of these sheepmen from the high meadows, and they vow never to return.
“I’ve seen the carcasses,” said Christian Marrot, a sheep-raiser who was helping lead a flock through the streets of St.-Girons. “Now, I’m keeping mine below.”
Bears, sheep and humans are a volatile mix in these mountains. The combination has set up a classic French clash between the know-it-all state in Paris, guided by the stiff hand of the European Union, and one of France’s myriad microcultures.
The conflict is elemental: The French government is trying to restore the centuries-old brown bear population, which dwindled nearly to extinction by the 1990s, the victim of encroaching humanity and hunting.
The shepherds are not interested in the bear as “an element of the natural heritage in the Pyrenees,” as a government brochure puts it. They see their sheep being eaten, in sizable numbers.
If the bears are a hidden part of the landscape, their sheep prey are the opposite.
As the shepherds see it, the bears have pitted bureaucrats against peasants.
“They’re taking surveys in Paris about our life here in the Ariège,” grumbled Pierre Fort, 74, a sheep farmer tending his flock in the town’s streets, referring to the French department where most of the bears live. Each one of his animals had his initials stamped on its backside.
“They didn’t ask us if we wanted the bears here,” said Mr. Fort, his black beret clamped down on his head. He lost 35 sheep to the bears last year. “Too much,” he said. “It’s become impossible.”
This fall the government plans to introduce two more bears to the existing population of 43. A court ruling in March gave it little choice, after years of foot-dragging because of local opposition.
Photo: Statistics of Het Parool, July 28, 2018, JDN, Het Parool, pg 20: Next autumn the government wants to release two more bears, on top of the existing bear population of 43. Last year, the number of attacks of bears on sheep increased by 48% compared to 2016. Map shows central area population of bears, where France moved Slovenian bears. Presently there are 41 bears in the central, and 2 in the western area if the Pyrenees.
France was not living up to its commitment to re-establish the bears nor to a European Union mandate on biodiversity, the court ruled. “France has an obligation, under the European Union directives,” said Alain Reynes, who heads a pro-bear association that was a plaintiff in the case. “The French state was forced to act.” Despite the opposition, officials have been trucking in anesthetized bears from Slovenia for more than 20 years, releasing them in the mountains, then tracking them with great solicitude.
They issue lavish reports about the bears’ lifestyle, assign multiple wildlife agents to watch over them, film them nuzzling forest trees and give each a cuddly name, like Callisto or Cannellito or Caramellito. The sheepmen grumble about that, too. In the old days, the bear was addressed simply and respectfully as “lo moussu,” or “the mister,” in local dialect.
The Slovenian bears have adapted to their new French surroundings as best they can. But the shepherds say these Central European animals don’t play by the same rules as the more civilized French bears of old, and are more prone to eat their sheep. They are tired of mourning over the bloodied remains of animals that are like family members.
“These Slovenian bears are much more opportunistic,” said Robin Cazalé, a farmer who lost three sheep to the bears last month. The numbers back the belief that the bears are becoming more of a menace. Bear attacks on sheep increased 46 percent in 2017, compared with 2016. Some 464 sheep were killed or wounded by bears, the greatest number since the bear-import program began in 1996. Dozens of sheep, frightened by marauding bears, ran to their deaths off high cliffs last year, some 260 in all.
“I’ve lost half my flock,” said Mr. Marrot, the sheep owner who no longer goes to the mountain. “It’s not worth it. Let people work in peace.”
Tempers are rising in the Pyrenees over the issue. In the last year there have been demonstrations, arrests and gunshots in the air. The tension is likely to increase before the two new bears are dropped into the area in September. While bear hunting has been forbidden since 1962, the shepherds are threatening to ignore the ban.
A clandestine video of masked and hooded gunmen warning that bear hunting would begin again circulated widely, infuriating the local préfete, Paris’s top representative in the Ariège. The bears are “a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads,” said François Thibaut, a former shepherd who said he had been losing 40 to 50 animals a year to the bears before giving up several years ago going to the mountain pasture with the animals.
“It’s a feeling of powerlessness,” said Mr. Thibaut, who now raises sheep in a cooperative. “And that, that is very, very stressful. That breaks you, completely.”
In June, the police summoned three sheep breeders for questioning after shots were fired as wildlife agents were examining dead sheep for signs of a bear attack at Le Saleix, 60 miles from here.
The French government, the wildlife agents and the bear associations periodically declare only a minority of sheep farmers are against the bears, that most of the population supports them, that damage is relatively minor and that the owners are fully indemnified for any losses. No humans have been attacked by the bears, which typically range from 350 to 550 pounds, since the repopulation program began.
But all that discounts the psychological toll the bears have taken on these shepherds. They describe being at the mercy of the fog that envelops these mountains for hours, hiding the flock and allowing the bear to strike unseen.
In the period when he was losing many animals, “I was in a depression,” Mr. Thibaut said. “They always get the best ones.” Mr. Cazalé once saw a bear on the mountainside “calmly eating one of my beasts,” he said. “It was like seeing your dog being eaten.”The bear, Mr. Cazalé added, “saw me, he was mocking me.”
The way the bears feed also disturbs the farmers. “It’s madness,” Mr. Cazalé said. “They only eat a little. They don’t kill. It’s painful, especially if you know the beasts.” “When you see that, it’s hyper-violent,” Mr. Thibaut said. “They are still alive.”
The sheepmen fear the bears are ultimately attacking not only their flocks, but their way of life in the Pyrenees. “The state needs to find a solution,” Mr. Cazalé said. “Because pretty soon they will have to release men in these mountains, not the bear”.