April 27, 2006

French Officials Release Bear in Pyrenees

PARIS -- Somewhere in the mountains and forests of the French Pyrenees, to sheep farmers' chagrin, a little bear far from home is getting used to new surroundings.

Named "Palouma," which means "dove" in the local Occitan dialect, the bear was captured in Slovenia and released by French environmental officials Tuesday night, despite farmers' protests. She is the first of five being released to repopulate the bear population.

Noisy demonstrations by 50 shepherds, dozens of local elected officials and others who fear the bears will attack sheep flocks forced a change in plans.

The 183-pound bear was originally to have been released near the town of Arbas. But because of the protests, it was eventually set free near a neighboring town, away from cameras and demonstrators.

"I am profoundly shocked by the farmers' lack of responsibility, of will to dialogue, and of respect for the local population's pro-bear positions," Environment Minister Nelly Olin said.

Children handed out poems dedicated to Palouma throughout the day, and local radios broadcast songs by French singer Renaud, one of the bear's lead sponsors.

Although 150 policemen and a helicopter watched roads leading to Arbas, gunshots were heard during the first release attempt.

Brown bears completely disappeared from the Pyrenees in the 1980s. Too few remained to ensure their survival.

Authorities released three bears in a similar operation in 1996. One of them, Boutxi, killed 165 sheep last year and another two on Sunday.