The Pyrenean Bear

Watching for bears in their habitat in the Pyrenees

Brown bears had been prevalent in the Pyrenees (and the rest of Europe and Asia) for more than 600,000 years until the 20th century. In the 1900s, some 150 bears roamed the habitat in the Pyrenees. By the 1940s, they were France’s last remaining bear population.

The scientific name for the brown bear in the Pyrenees is Ursus Arctos.

Bear hunting and the desire (and need) to protect farming livestock sounded the death knell for this native bear population. By 1954 just 70 were dispersed across two main habitats in the west (Pyrenees Atlantiques and Hautes Pyrenees) and in the centre around Arieges and in the south of Haute Garonne.

It took until the 1970s before the campaign started against the inevitable extinction of brown bears from the Pyrenees. The French Government finally introduced a plan to protect the Pyrenean Bear in the 1980s, but it was too little too late.

The last Pyrenean Bear disappeared from the central Pyrenees in the early 1990s, leaving just 7 Pyrenean Bears in the west of the mountain range. The number was no longer enough to sustain the native Pyrenean Bear by itself.

Local campaigners and the French Government swung into action. With financial aid and support from the European Union, they introduced a programme to protect and stimulate the Pyrenean Bear population. Three brown bears of the same species as the native Pyrenean Bear were captured in Slovenia and released in the Pyrenees. Initially, they adapted well to the Pyrenean habitat and several bear cubs were born.

However, the population would not flourish as hoped. The bears were spread too few and far between. There weren’t enough female bears. And the risk of degeneration was too great.

So, in 2005, the French Government redoubled its conservation efforts. Within the year, four new female bears and one male, again from Slovenia, were released into the Pyrenees. There are now some 20 bears roaming the Pyrenees, with conservationists keeping a watchful eye on the population. Some 150 people are now employed in the conservation of the Pyrenean Bear population.

Although the conservation effort was taken forward with a groundswell of support from local environmental activists, the programme was not entirely without opposition. Many anti-bear campaigners resisted the move to reestablish the Pyrenean bear, erecting “Non a l’Ours!” banners across the region, largely in farming areas.

Bear habits and habitats

Bears have an expansive range. Female bears will roam across some 100 square kilometres, while male bears will roam between 500 and 1,000 square kilometres. They will traverse forests, valleys and mountain peaks to find food, shelter, breeding ground and perfect spots to hibernate.

The bear goes into hibernation in November and emerges from its den in March, although it will emerge from its den during hibernation to catch some rays or top up on its reserves if there’s food about. The bear prefers to hibernate in rocky caves.

While the bear’s diet is 70 per cent herbivorous, the bear is an omnivore and it will eat what it can find easily as and when it finds it. Its diet is as varied as the habitat and time of year dictates; and includes everything from raspberries, blackberries and grass to insects, and wild and domestic animals - dead or alive.

Living alongside the bear

With the bear population being reestablished, preserved and protected, farmers and local people are taking measures to ensure man and bear kind can live side by side.

There are some 621,300 sheep living on the Pyrenean pastures during the summer and between 10,000 and 20,000 of those are lost each year. Around 300 of those are lost to bear attacks.

As part of the package of measures introduced by the French Government to protect the native bear population, without disrupting the way of life in the Pyrenees sheep farmers are compensated for any loss to their flock as a result of bear attacks.

Measures have also been taken to minimise the potential for attack on flocks when out to pasture; these include ensuring a Shepherd provides constant surveillance over a flock, Patou dogs being used to protect the sheep and electric fences being used wherever possible. These measures not only protect against the bear but against fox and loose dogs too.

Protecting the culture of sheep farming in the mountains has been a major priority for the government, not only because of the importance of meat, milk and cheese production but also for the importance of its employment to the mountain economy. Sheep farming is also an important part of maintaining the mountain landscape.

Vital statistics: How to recognise a Pyrenean Bear

Yes, we know, it’s the only bear in the Pyrenees. This aside, in the extremely rare event that you come across a bear while on your travels and adventures, the brown bear almost always roams alone and usually at night.

Generally seen on all fours, the bear holds its head down, it has furry, rounded ears and a hump on the back around the shoulders. The Pyrenean brown bear measures between 1.70m and 2m standing and between 0.80m and 1.1m on all fours. The difference in weight between male and female is considerable with a male bear weighing it at 300kg, while a female weighs in at just 90kg. If you do spot a bear during the daytime, its colour can range from beige to dark brown.

The Pyrenean Brown Bear, whose scientific name is Ursus Arctos and who local name is Lou Pe Descaous, can live for up to 25 years in the wild habitat.

Bear tracks & other bear signs

A bear print has five pads & claws. The front paw print will be short and wide (the traces of its pads and claws are usually quite faint). The back paw print is longer and thinner. It will resemble a human footprint, because like humans, the bear walks on the flat of its foot. Keep an eye out for clumps of fur on hedges, bushes and trees; and for upturned rocks, under which the bear is looking for insects and other grub.

What to do if you spot a bear

While the Pyrenean bear shares the same domain as people, the bear will do all it can to avoid human contact. The bear has good eyesight, excellent hearing and sense of smell. It will hear or smell you before it spots you and will look to avoid crossing paths with you.

However, as with all large wild animals, if taken by surprise it can pose a threat to you. So, to avoid a surprise encounter, follow this advice:

  1. Never attempt to come into close contact (less than 50m) with a bear
  2. Never follow the bear tracks if you come across them.
  3. Keep all dogs close by. If left to roam, they could take a bear by surprise and the bear’s instinct will be to attack the dog (and you f you put yourself in the middle of it).

In the unlikely event that you do cross paths with a bear in its habitat in the Pyrenees:

  1. Calmly make your presence known by moving or talking calmly, slowly and quietly
  2. Slowly distance yourself from the bear, avoiding the path the bear is most likely to take in his flight from the encounter
  3. Never, ever run

The bear may rise onto its hind paws. This is not an act of agression. He is curious and is seeking to identify the smells to understand what potential danger is around him/her.

The Pyrenean Bear’s reproductive cycle

The Pyrenean bear will start reproducing at the age of 4 and usually mates between May and June. The female will give birth to up to 3 bears the following winter. She looks after them for 18 months before leaving them to their own devices.

A bear cub weighs just 300g at birth and remains extremely vulnerable, with one in two bears not making it beyond their first 12 months.

The bear: an integral part of the Pyrenean consciousness

Although the bear is a solitary creature and is afraid of humans, the Pyrenean bear is part of local legend and consciousness. The bear is found in local literature, fairy tales, myths and stories, as well as being a regular part of village festivities and souvenir shops. The Pyrenean Bear is often commemorated in local architecture and landscaping, with statues and sculptures marking the significance of the bear population.

Many geographic areas and features are named after the bear, recognising the bear’s historical paths across the Pyrenees (Pas De L’Ours, Coumeille de l’Ours, Tute de l’Ours, etc).