Pyrenean livestock farmers are rejoicing after winning an assurance from French President Emmanuel Macron that he will not authorise the release into the wild of any more of the bears blamed for a surge in deadly attacks on sheep.
“He promised that the re-insertions (of bears) are finished, that he won’t release any more,” said Jean-Pierre Pommies, who raises sheep and cows.
Mr Pommies wore his broad farmer’s beret to Tuesday’s meeting with Mr Macron in Pau, a Pyrenean town with sweeping views of the mountains.
“He was able to understand that it’s a big problem for us,” Mr Pommies added. “We have reached the bottom, and the situation was ridiculous for Pyrenean herders.”
When France’s last pocket of brown bears appeared to be heading for extinction in the Pyrenees in the 1990s, the country began importing animals from Slovenia, where the population is booming.
Eight were freed into the wild in 1996, 1997 and 2006. Another release of two Slovenian female bears followed in 2018, the first first full year of Mr Macron’s presidency.
The population is now estimated at around 40 bears, doubling its size since 2010 and roaming over a long and expanding swathe of the mountains that form the border between France and Spain, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.
Bear attacks on livestock have grown, too. Having long been largely stable, mostly between 100 and 200 attacks per year across the Pyrenees, including Spain, France and Andorra, they surged to close to 400 in 2018, according to the most recent official annual report.
Shepherds who suffered included one of Mr Pommies’ friends, whose flock was devastated in an attack last year, he said. The sheep took fright and plunged off a cliff together.
“There were 256 piled up at the bottom,” he said. “They had to finish some of them off with their knives. For us shepherds, that is traumatic.”
He believes the presence of the predators is simply “incompatible” with the Pyrenean mountain economy that rests largely on herding.
“I love bears. I’m passionate about them as animals. But I love that they live happily in Yellowstone, in Canada, in Romania and Slovenia,” he said.
In the Pyrenees, “the people who are pro-bear say that it used to work for the old timers, that they used to deal with it. And that is completely false. History shows that men have always killed them”.
Herders including Mr Pommies pounced on Macron to talk about the Pyrenees’ bears when the French leader turned up at the Tour de France last year on a day when the bicycle race swung through the peaks.
Mr Pommies said he threatened to release his animals into the riders’ path unless Mr Macron agreed to a meeting.
Emmanuelle Wargon, a deputy environment minister who attended the meeting, told broadcaster Sud Radio that Mr Macron “reaffirmed that we don’t have any plans to reintroduce (more) bears”, adding: “It was important to tell them this.”