The story of brown bears in the Pyrenees and compensation for sheep farmers

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Lauren Boxold; Farshad Fesharakizadeh; Sasha Rodriguez; Annie Walker. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.

The Pyrenees mountain range is one of the only places brown bears live in Europe. There are around twenty bears in the area, most of them from Slovenia, where they were reintroduced as a part of a government strategy[1]. Although the population of brown bears in Pyrenees is diminishing, they are still being held responsible for many issues with sheep deaths. Sheep farmers are being compensated for damage the reintroduced brown bears have caused to their flocks. Along with compensation for damage caused by the brown bears, measures have been proposed to limit the potential damage on flocks. [2] Owners are compensated for each livestock killed by the brown bears under a deal between government and farmers after the release of Slovenian bears into the Pyrenees [2].

Life history and behavior

Pyrenean brown bear Also know as Urus Arctos Has decreased from around 200 animals to less than 20 over the last 40 years. The Bears distribution used to cover Pyrenean slopes from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea; However, today is an area about 800Km2 in the western Pyrenees. “. This area includes a national park, which, however, covers only a small portion of the bear's habitat. Thus, the bear is living largely outside the reserve” [3]. Although these brown bears are living in a remote location, they will continue to suffer from human interference. According to Pays de l'Ours-Adet “the bear reaches its biological optimum in beech forests between 800 and 1200 meters above sea level, whose diversity and biomass are important. In the Western Pyrenees, due to human activities and deforestation, the bear is pushed back to higher altitudes at the limit of the mountainous stage (1500m)”[4]. Also “Most of the Pyrenean bear's range consists of rather steep slopes covered with meadows or forest. Characteristic trees are beech (Fagus sylvatica) and fir (Abies alba) and, to a lesser extent, oaks (Quercus spp.) and other broad-leaved trees as well as isolated pockets of pine (Pinus silvestris)” [3]. The brown bears “thrive in an environment that includes mixed coniferous and deciduous forest/woodland, where there are rocky areas in which they can hibernate and also where there is open grassland on which they can feed” Because of development programs in the area such as mining and road construction, bears have been forced to find new havens [5].


The Pyrenean brown bear population, formerly occupying most of the Pyrenean chain, was estimated as 150-200 animals [6] on the French (northern) slopes and later as 70 animals [7] . In addition, in summer bears will prey on livestock which is available on the mountain. Usually the preys are sheep, goats, and cattle; but, they mostly prey on sheep. However, “The brown bear is an omnivore. Around 80% of its diet is herbivorous. It loves wild raspberries, bilberries, nuts and fresh grass shoots. It will also eat small dead animals. Only rarely and if it is very hungry will it actually kill for food” [5]. On the other hand, the farmers would try to kill the bear in order to eliminate the danger and save their livestock. Therefore, one the reasons for the drastic decrease of bear population was the local intrusion over the bears. However, “From 1958 to 1967, amends were made by the Counseil Superieur de la Chasse (Chimits 1973). Compensation has certainly prevented more intense poaching of bears. The costs of compensation may be about 20,000 to 65,000 French francs ($4,400 to $14,300) per annum” [3].

Brown bears distribution. By Marlene via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The reintroduction program

Thus, A reintroduction program was launched in 1996 by the French government with the support of EU. Three brown bears from Slovenia were released in the Pyrenees. “A generous compensation package was put in place to compensate farmers for the loss of sheep if it could be proved they had been killed by a bear. Farmers were also educated on how to best protect their flocks using the fearsome Patou dog to good effect.” The government is compensating the farmers at any cost although “The bears, since their first summer back in the Pyrenees, have regularly attacked the local flocks. By some estimates, about 200 to 300 sheep are killed each year by the resident bears. Meanwhile, roughly 15,000 Pyrenean sheep die each year of other causes, including falls from cliffs and violent mountain storms” [8]. However, the program did not succeed as well as it was expected. Unfortunately, in 2004, “Hunters [] shot dead the last female brown bear native to the Pyrenees, condemning the species to extinction and causing an "environmental catastrophe" for France.” So, another reintroduction program was lunched to bring in four Slovenian female brown bears and one male. The population is increasing and “some 150 people are now involved in the conservation of the brown bear in the Pyrenees” [5].

Population and distribution

According to Fig.1, the central Pyrenees is the where the majority of the bears live. “In 2016, 37 bears were detected here, 14 females, 11 males, 2 youngsters of unknown sex and 10 cubs born in 2016. So far in 2017, it’s likely that at least 6 females will have mated which should increase the bear’s population by 6-10” [5].


The presence of bears in the Pyrenees is a local controversy. The reintroduction of the bears in the Pyrenees carries categories of actors positively affected and negatively affected. The reintroduction of bears has caused destruction of pastoralism, which greatly affects Shepard. Being said, it is not fair on the shepherd, because bears traumatize, disorient and kill their flocks. On the other hand, the reproduction of bears has caused development of tourist activities. Bears attract the general public and promote the Pyrenees[9].

Activists arguments

Sheep, are easy prey and therefore that is where most of the conflict arises. For instance, the are about 621,300 sheep living on the Pyrenean pastures during summer and between 10,000 and 20,000 are lost each year. According to the anti- bear activists, the bear is a predator, responsible for the deaths of 200 to 250 of those sheeps.Anti-bear activists are certain that bears are a danger to humans. For instance, the claim that subsidized methods for protecting flocks ( animal enclosures, guard dogs, electric fencing) are ineffective [2]. Predominately this measures are taken because sheep culture is a major asset for the Government.Sheep provides meat, milk and cheese and hundreds of employment to the mountain economy. Besides the ecosystem services that sheep provide, its also a crucial part of maintaining the mountain landscape. Oliver Maurin, is a farmer who highly depends on sheep to produce cheese and sustain his family. Oliver says, "I love bears but I don't want to have to live with them. For us farmers it's not about compensation, it's changing our way of life, our way of farming. I know we get EU subsidies to farm but we would have to get much more money before we accept bears here"[9]. Thus, bears are more of a burden then a asset for farmers. Also, by trying to keep bears out there has been a denounce waste of vast amount of public funds. The budget for the population reinforcement programme 2006 adds up to 2,246,818 euros; that is 45,00 euros per bear. Likewise, the anti- bear groups declare that the brown bear is not an endangered species worldwide. Therefore, its presence in large numbers may be a threat to the Pyrenean biodiversity[9].

Pro-bear activists

Having bears in the Pyrenees is an ecotourism product, in which people from all over the world get to watch the specie in their natural environment. The presence of bear is known to attract tourists that want to learn about the animal, and their habitat. If their experience is remarkable by learning and watching bears, their are most likely to return. For that reason, the more people that come to visit, the more revenue the local community will have [2].Besides ecotourism, France has obligations under conventions on biodiversity. The minister of Ecology and sustainable development states that, although the brown bear is not an endangered species worldwide; France is responsible for maintaining and monitoring their own population of bears [9].

The Issue

Recently there has been an increase of sheep deaths because of brown bear attacks, farmers have been far from pleased due to the decline in numbers of their sheep herds, and there has been conflict over the compensation for farmers. After being eradicated due to over hunting, brown bears have been reintroduced to the Pyrenees mountains about twenty years ago, to roam freely, but have been causing great distress to sheep farmers in the area. It is believed there are now over thirty brown bears in the area, and the number has risen since their initial reintroduction to the mountainous area [1] .

Recent Evidence of the Issue

Recently, (July 2017) in France, over two hundred sheep ran off a roughly 200 meter cliff to their death in attempt to escape from a brown bear who had attacked one of the sheep in the herd [1] . The French government assures the farmers they will be compensated for the death of their animals, however there are still many farmers who are displeased with the current state of regulation, and are still concerned for the livelihoods of their animals. This is not the first incident in which bears have been responsible for the mass death of sheep, with similar incidents occurring in previous years, where over one hundred sheep leaped to their death off a cliff [2]. The Confédération Paysanne de l’Ariège made a statement about the situation saying “Pastoralism – which protects biodiversity and keeps the mountains alive – is not compatible with the reintroduction of large predators,”as a response to the recent attack on the sheep [10]. The French government typically compensates for the loss of sheep about three weeks after any incidents, after it is proved that it was a bear that was responsible for the death of the sheep [2].

A Conservation Approach and Who it Effects

There are no longer native bears in the area after they were eradicated by hunting. The bears that were brought back to the area came from Slovenia, but their number are still low [1]. There have been cases of farmers shooting and killing bears after attacks to their sheep herds, and now the nation state has been fined for not protecting the bears. The farmers are not the only people who are having issues with the brown bears, conservation groups are looking to help protect the brown bears “through active measures to foster their peaceful coexistence with local livestock farmers.” [11]. This mission was created by the Mission Ensemble,which is a private, state-approved Foundation, set up in 2004 by Gérard Brémond and his wife, Jacqueline Délia Brémond [11]. The foundation is working to “focus on the success of effectively protect[ing] flocks, [maintaining] decent working conditions for shepherds” and creating a “peaceful coexistence” between farmers and bears [11]. The idea of protecting the animals that are in some cases responsible for the deaths of their animals is a difficult one for some farmers to come to terms with. However with the legislation put in place that provides them compensation, in tandem with the conservationist approach to keep all parties involved safe seems to be the direction for the future, where famers, sheep, and bears can all live in peace.

Remedial Actions

In order for the conservation efforts of the reintroduction of brown bears to continue and be successful, community input is necessary. Recognizing the attitudes of local communities that are most affected by the reintroduction is essential in creating a management plan [12] . The efforts to increase the brown bear population through reintroduction can only be successful if those affected, mainly Pyrenean sheep farmers, believe that it is possible to cohabitate [13] . The original reintroduction of brown bears did not involve deliberate consultation with local institutions or people, or coordination with Spanish authorities, which resulted in resistance [14]. With the support for the project disproportionately coming from urban areas, the local sheep farmers were not adequately consulted about the project [14]. This disregard for the role of humans in managing this project is key to the problems the French government is facing [14]. In order for the sheep farmers and the brown bears to cohabitate, a management program must be implemented that both continues the goal of conservation of brown bears while also involving local farmers [12]. Government compensation gives farmers the financial basis to continue their livelihoods despite the threat from bears, however, a program that encourages alternative practices, such as the use of Pyrenees Mountain dogs, electric fencing, or other deterrents, is the most effective way to allow both farmers and bears to coexist. In order for the continual conservation of the brown bear population in the region, the government should consult local communities with future programs for reintroduction of more bears [14]. This will allow for farmers to play a role in the program, which will provide insight to the most effective way of cohabitation [12].


Providing compensation to farmers for bear attacks is essential in gaining support for brown bear reintroduction and maintaining farmers’ livelihoods, however the policies currently in place are not the most effective. There is the opportunity for farmers to pocket financial aid by refusing to properly protect their flocks, as the current compensation of 140 euros is above the market price of sheep, which is between 20 and 100 euros [2]. In order for compensation to be most effective in encouraging farmers to accept brown bears while also maintaining their livelihoods, payment should be set at a level just above market price, in order to discourage improper protection for financial gain. These payments are the government's way of encouraging sheep farmers to adapt to coexist with the bears [2].

Alternative Practices

The continued resentment from farmers to change their practices requires the implementation of other actions. Electric fences are another option that can be funded by governments and do not require sheep farmers to drastically change their practices [2]. Other devices such as lights, pyrotechnics, and harmless lasers are bear deterrents that the government will provide grants for [2]. Public authorities have also implemented a pastoral program, which offers financial help to equip farmers’ summer pastures with necessary equipment [9].

Use of Great Pyrenees dogs

Governments should strongly encourage the use of Great Pyrenees dogs as they have been shown to drastically reduce the number of sheep killed by bears [2]. Pyrenean sheep farmers argue that the reintroduction of bears requires them to change their way of farming in order to protect their sheep [2]. Most farmers do not permanently supervise their flocks, and are resistant to change their techniques [9]. The adoption of using dogs for sheep protection allows farmers to continue their traditional practices with little alteration in order to adapt to cohabitation with bears. Government grants pay for the dogs, and financial aid is also received once the dog has been trained, along with a continual annual payment [2]. Farmers remain reluctant to accept the extra work required to train a patou, despite the proven reduction in the number of sheep killed by bears by more than 90% [2]. However governments should continue to encourage this option as it is a streamline approach to developing a way for farmers and bears to coexist.

Great Pyrenees Sheep Dog Guarding the Flock. By Don DeBold via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0

Over all there has been significant conflict in the past and in the present. Collaborative efforts between the French Government, farmers and other conservation groups there is hope for a future where bears, sheep, and farmers can all live in peace. The French government is working with the farmers to decide fair compensation for the loss of their sheep [2].

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Post image: By Don DeBold via Wikimedia CommonsCC BY 2.0