Farmers&Predators: From the Alps to the Sierra Nevada: Bears in the Pyrenees
Respected naturalists and wildlife photographers Angelo Gandolfi and Elisabeth van Lersel, embark on a journey through southern France, Spain and Portugal, discovering large predators and looking at their impact on the environment and the human communities sharing the same ecosystems. Here’s what they write in part two of their diary extract.
In 1970, the WWF (Italy) and the National Park of Abruzzo launched the wolf protection program, its aim to support human/predator coexistence over more traditional predator management methods. It was 22 years before species expansion 850 kilometers (528 miles) via Tuscany and Liguria led to the first sighting on the French border in 1992. But as soon as the wolf reached the French-Italian Maritime Alps, its rate of expansion increased, taking only 7 more years to extend its occupation to the eastern Pyrenees some 470 kilometers (292 miles) away. The wolf’s ability to traverse populated areas, crossing rivers and highways, traveling over bridges and tunnels was amazing.
The eastern Pyrenees, south of Carcassonne, does not have high mountain peaks, rather expanses of forest and prairies suitable for small-scale farming. The area has always provided safe refuge: in 1208, Albigensians fled into the area to escape the slaughter perpetrated against them by Pope Innocent III. In the woods around here, you can still see the ruined remains of Cathar castle, where the migrants resisted attack until 1229. In this sparsely populated area, the wolf has found an abundance of prey to feast on, mainly roe deer and wild boar, thus its presence (as often happens when it has natural prey to satisfy it) has remained largely unnoticed. Even today, we don’t know exactly how many wolf packs live in the region, but there is also no evidence of conflict with the farmers. However, there is no doubt that the species is continuing its advance east.
What is indeed surprising, is that the Italian wolf has secured such a firm foothold in these mountains while the Spanish wolf has not had the same success despite the much shorter distances that separate its large populations in northwestern Spain from the Pyrenees. We will talk about this more in the next episode…
From France to Spain
Our journey passes from the eastern Pyrenees to the central Pyrenees. Still, in France, we stop at the Col de Latrape, attracted by a magnificent Pyrenean shepherd dog dozing on the veranda of a bar-restaurant.
In this region, farming, primarily cattle farming, is still thriving. But at the end of May, when we visited, the herds of cattle have not yet arrived: they will arrive in June. And besides, our “patou” (what the locals call the Pyrenean Sheepdog) is now too old to accompany the herds, and is enjoying retirement. Here, it is evident the predator friendly practice of using livestock guardian dogs has not been lost, as had happened in the Mercantour, with the problems that brought.
Truth be told, there is a specific reason farmers in the region use livestock guardian dogs: although the wolf has not yet arrived in the central Pyrenees, the bear has – and it has come from Slovenia of all places!
“Yes to the bear”
There are no indigenous bears here anymore. In fact, in the small museum of the Hospice de France, I find a faded photo of a bear chained and being fed dated 1952, perhaps one of the last…? I am told that around fifty bears (similar to numbers occupying the National Park of Abruzzo and Trentino), were imported from Slovenia as a result of a French-Spanish wildlife reintroduction program.
In general, farmers in the region are more opposed to the bear than the wolf; I remember there was a lot of conflict in the past, but now, all seems calm: we even came across some graffiti in support of the bears, saying: “oui a l’ours” (“Yes to the bear”). We cross the French-Spanish border through the Bielsa Tunnel, between Gavarnie and Mount Perdido. These woods, mountains and canyons are an ideal setting for the Apennine Wolf. But has it arrived yet?
On the road that leads to the Ordesa valley, at the heart of the Ordesa national park, I find a small herd of cows on their way to the high pastures. The herder says, “there are no wolves in Ordesa”.
“They will come, they will come …” I think, while photographing a chamois grazing in the early morning light at the edge of the road where the herd has just passed.