April 26, 2006

France Releases Slovenian Bear in Pyrenees

PARIS -- France has imported a female brown bear from Slovenia and released it into the Pyrenees despite opposition from local farmers to try and build up the dwindling bear population.

"Palouma," as the bear is called, was released on Tuesday night, 24 hours after it was captured in Slovenia and transported to France in a small truck.

It was the first of five bears due to be set free before June 15 in the mountains that divide France and Spain as part of a plan to boost numbers.

Between 14 and 18 brown bears are thought to be left in the Pyrenees and there is a shortage of females.

Around 150 police officers backed up by a helicopter were on hand for the event which had to be delayed after protestors blocked the first attempted release.

Farmers and some local residents are worried the bears will attack their animals.

Ecology Minister Nelly Olin said the behavior of the protestors was "imbecile and irresponsible" but she said help was on hand for farmers.

"I understand completely the worry of the farmers and shepherds and so with the agriculture ministry we have put in place a certain number of plans including the possibility of having their flocks watched," Olin told LCI Television on Wednesday.

One of the existing bears, Boutxy, is accused by farmers of having killed three sheep since the end of March.

Boutxy, a male, is the son of a Slovenian bear released in the Pyrenees in 1996 and killed a year later by a hunter.

The World Wildlife Fund conservation group estimates that brown bears are responsible for the deaths of less than 1 percent of sheep that die each year in the Pyrenees.

"At least 80 percent of what they eat is vegetarian and the rest is meat, that can be dead animals, some wild animals and a few sheep," said Olivier Hernandez, who is responsible for the large carnivores program at WWF-France.

He said around 150 to 300 sheep are killed by bears each year in the Pyrenees.