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French Farmers Fear Bears

File photo: Who's afraid of the big Brown bear?
by Staff Writers
Arbas, France (AFP) Apr 03, 2006
Pyrenees villagers gathered Saturday to protest against government plans to release five Slovakian brown bears in the region later this month. Environment minister Nelly Olin last year announced the plan to capture the bears and release them in the mountains here in order to replenish a local bear population verging on extinction.

But many locals oppose the government plans, claiming that the bears will be a danger to hikers and shepherds and create havoc among herds of cattle and flocks of sheep.

The demonstrators hurled firecrackers and bottles at the town hall, smashed concrete flower containers, set fire to a wooden statue of a bear and covered the walls with graffiti.

"They have caused more damage today than the bears in 10 years," said mayor Francois Arcangeli, who supports the introduction of the bears.

Many of the demonstrators wore the black berets traditional in the region and carried shepherds' staffs. They were supported by a dozen mayors from the region wearing their sashes of office.

Philippe Lacube, spokesman for an association campaigning to prevent the release of the bears, said the government ignored reality, calling the bear "the enemy of pastoral agriculture and mountain tourism."

There are currently up to 18 bears in the Pyrenees straddling the frontier between France and Spain, including some already brought in from Slovenia in 1996 and 1997.

The shooting by a hunter of the last surviving female Pyrenean bear provoked fury among environmentalists and led to a promise by the government to double the bear population in the Pyrenees in the next three years.

Olin said last year that the government would set up mechanisms to monitor the effects of the project and introduce measures to protect and help farmers.

Arcangeli said the bears were neither a danger nor a big problem.

"Bears are responsible for one percent of the 15,000 to 20,000 sheep lost each year by stockholders in the region," the mayor said.

But farmer Olivier Ralu, said that only the other night a bear tried to attack sheep in his region, which were protected by an electrified fence. He said a male bear "regularly" kills sheep in the surroundings, and other farmers said there was no hope of "peaceful cohabitation" with the animals.

Arcangeli accused the farmers of making the bears a scapegoat for the problems in their sector. "A handful of hooligans is ready for any misdeed, but I notice that the opponents of the bears are becoming fewer and fewer," he said.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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