French police are hunting the killer of a brown bear in the Pyrénées after the government said it would bring legal action against the culprit.
Élisabeth Borne, the ecology minister, described the shooting of the animal, a protected species, as “illegal and deeply regrettable”. The bear was a four or five-year-old male weighing 150kg to 200kg, according to local officials in the Ariège region.
“The prefect is going there. The state will bring legal action,” Borne tweeted.
The reintroduction of bears from Slovenia into the Pyrénées, where they had been hunted almost to extinction, has been controversial since it began in the mid-1990s It is fiercely opposed by the region’s sheep farmers in France and on the Spanish side of the mountains.
When French and Spanish authorities tried to introduce 15 bears into the Pyrénées in 2006, farmers made deadly traps of pots of honey laced with broken glass.
There are an estimated 50 bears in the Pyrénées, a number that experts say will not guarantee the survival of the species. France adopted a 10-year “bear plan” in 2018 to reintroduce more of the animals, but environmentalists claim the government suspended the measure after lobbying from farmers; last year, locals said bears killed 1,173 sheep and destroyed 36 bee hives.
To encourage “coexistence” between farmers and bears, the French government offers funding for training guard dogs, installing fences to protect herds and the hiring of extra shepherds to keep an eye on flocks. Farmers say the mountain terrain means the measures are ineffective because the sheep spread out over a wide area, making them difficult to follow and vulnerable to attack. They also say the bears panic flocks into stampeding over cliffs.
Laurent Dumaine, the prosecutor for the commune of Foix, said an investigation would be opened for “unauthorised destruction of a protected species”, which carries a three-year jail term and a fine of €150,000.
Alain Reynes, the director of the Pays de l’ours (country of bears) organisation, said animal protection organisations would also take legal action against whoever killed the bear.
“Nobody has the right to kill a bear in the Pyrénées,” Reynes said. “It’s a protected species … we will do all in our power to find whoever is responsible and get them convicted.”
Environmental activists who support the bears say opposition to them is down to small farmers’ frustration at being swallowed up by agricultural multinationals.
“The bear is a pretext, unfortunately,” Florence Cortès, a Green party member, told RFI radio last year.