August 30, 2006

Accidental death of bear fuels passions in France

By James Mackenzie

PARIS (Reuters) - The apparently accidental death of a bear
in the Pyrenees has reopened a bitter row between mountain
farmers and environmentalists over whether bears should ever
have been reintroduced to the region.

One of five Slovenian bears released this spring in a
government project, 4 year-old Palouma was found dead last week
after what an autopsy found to be a fall from a cliff.

The incident sparked suggestions she may have been
deliberately driven to her death by opponents of the
reintroduction and countercharges that the government was at
fault for setting the bears loose in an unfamiliar environment.

Pro and anti-bear graffiti is a common sight along
roadsides in the Pyrenees, a region where bears were once

"We're not against bears," said Stephane Lessieux,
spokesman for ASPAP, a group that represents farmers who have
protested against the reintroduction program which they say
threatens sheep and cows that graze freely in the mountains in

"We respect the animals but I don't think that just because
you respect an animal and want to protect it that means you can
introduce it just anywhere," he said.

But the language in which the case has been discussed
suggests that more than animal welfare is at stake.

Generation Ecologie, an environmentalist party, has
demanded an official enquiry, saying that if it turns out that
Palouma was pursued, it would be "murder pure and simple" while
the daily Le Monde said ironically the bear had "died for

The case of the bears has underlined the differences
between the vaguely Green ideas espoused by many city dwellers
of all political colors and the concerns of rural inhabitants
who see themselves as the true guardians of the French

"Everyone who lives in a town in the 21st century is in
favor of the environment. Everyone wants to save animals. It's
normal," said Lessieux.

"But it's a naive idea to want to develop both human
activities and the wild in the same area."

Environmentalists dismiss the idea of any serious damage to
sheep or cattle herds caused by a total wild bear population in
the region estimated at around 20.

"Eating sheep isn't the real reason, given that losses are
paid for by the government," said Raymond Chaumont, a spokesman
for Generation Ecologie. "It's more a political thing; it's
more an opposition to decisions from Paris."

According to government figures, bears kill around 300
sheep and cattle a year in the region. This compares with up to
20,000 losses a year for other reasons.