Bears in the Ariège Pyrenees

Ours des PyrénéesIf you go down to the woods today…in the Ariège you may get a big surprise. Brown bears to be precise. And while you might think it normal to have bears wandering in the mountains as in many other places in the world, in the Pyrenees it is causing controversy.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when the Pyrenees began to be associated with bears. In fact, if you believe classical mythology, the very naming of the mountain range came through an ursine connection.

According to legend, a beautiful princess called Pyrène lived near the long stretch of peaks that separate France and Spain. There are numerous versions of her story but all are grisly. And all conclude with her fleeing to the mountains where she is promptly attacked and eaten by bears. Distraught at her untimely demise, Hercules named the range in her honour, thus cementing the link between the area and the brown bears that populate it.

In the centuries that followed, the inhabitants of this stunning region developed a contradictory relationship with the beasts that roamed the mountain forests. Both loved and reviled, the bears became symbols of terror and of affection. They were hunted for their skins. They were captured as cubs, with their mothers often killed in the process, and trained to perform. And they were shot for sport. But they were also used to promote merchandise, such as the Camembert de l’Ours in Oust. And when the separation of church and state was made formal in 1905, the villagers of Ercé were not averse to roping in bears to help them protest outside the local église.

Over the years, the territory available to the bears dwindled as human activity expanded. Roads now crossed valleys that had once been perfect habitats. Mines sprang up in remote places that had formerly provided the sanctuary necessary to rear young cubs. And man continued to hunt. As a result, the number of bears in the region, and in the Ariège in particular, fell dramatically. So in 1996 a reintroduction programme was launched, aimed at supporting the dwindling population, and the legacy of conflict between humans and these majestic creatures entered another era.

Immediately the scheme was met with resistance. Farmers and shepherds across the Pyrenees, but especially in the Ariège where the high pastures provide lush summer grazing for livestock, denounced the plans and the lack of consultation that had led to them. Viewing the project as yet another imposition by Parisian bureaucrats who knew nothing about life in the mountains, they claimed that the increase in bears would be a direct threat to their livelihoods: more attacks on sheep; a need to monitor flocks more closely; a change to the way they were used to working. To make matters worse, the three bears that were released into the Pyrenean forests in 1996 weren’t even French! They were Slovenian.

Those in favour of the reintroduction dismissed these fears. There was a generous compensation package put in place that paid as much for a sheep killed by a bear as a farmer could get on the open market. The government offered grants to those who wanted to invest in better protection such as electric fencing or a Patou, a Pyrenean Mountain dog, a breed trained to protect flocks of sheep. There was even money made available to pay for shepherds over the summer season.

But it wasn’t enough. The process of claiming compensation was seen as too onerous and electric fencing was of no use to a shepherd on the high pastures where the flocks need to roam. As for statistics over the following years which showed that less than one percent of livestock deaths were caused by bears in the Ariège, that held little meaning for a farmer who had lost twenty sheep in one attack, a far bigger percentage of his entire stock. These concerns were echoed by some in the tourism sector who claimed that the presence of bears in the woods was deterring visitors from coming to the area.

Against this volatile backdrop, a year after the release, one of the female bears, Mellba, was shot by a hunter who claimed it was in self-defence, having somehow come between her and her two young cubs. More protests flared. The slogan Non Aux Ours (No to Bears) began to appear on walls and on roads, and demonstrations were held in Foix openly calling for the bears to be killed.

Perhaps if there had been time, things would have settled down. But in 2004, the last of the native Pyrenean female bears, Canelle, was shot by yet another hunter. Passions on both sides of the argument were raised and further fanned by the emergence of plans to introduce another batch of bears into the mountains. This time there would be five, some of which would be let loose in the Ariège.

In spring 2006, the village of Arbas, just over the Ariège border, agreed to be the site for the release. Mayor François Arcangeli was warned there might be some protests. But no one was prepared for the throng of angry people that descended on the mountain settlement. They gathered outside the town hall in the hundreds and smashed everything they could. They lit fires, threw red paint and blood on to walls and shouted death threats at Arcangeli. It took eighty gendarmes to restore order.
Needless to say, the government promptly reviewed its proposed policies of releasing fifteen bears over the next three years. Instead they decided to halt the programme in order to monitor the population, which was by now between twenty and thirty bears, and let nature take its course.

Stalemate. According to scientists, without the introduction of new bears, the present population is not viable. But the French government has stated that it is putting the reintroduction programme on hold; it will only ‘top up’ the numbers when a bear dies or is killed. This has caused David Chetrit, author of La réintroduction de l’ours: L’histoire d’une manipulation, to ask whether, with the death of the last native female bear, the initial ideal of preserving the Pyrenean bear has in fact been lost. One might also ask whether, with the situation remaining as it is, the Pyrenees have not just become a bear zoo, artificially managed from Paris.

Whatever stance you take on this deeply divisive issue, one thing is clear: there are indeed bears in the woods. Just don’t expect to find any Ariégeoise sharing a picnic with them.


Julia Stagg lived and worked in the Couserans region of the Ariège. She is the author of L’Auberge and The Parisian’s Return, the first in a series of novels set in the fictional mountain commune of Fogas in the Ariège-Pyrenees.

Many thanks to these photographers

About us

From 2000 to the end of 2017 was a site devoted to tourism in the department of Ariège. The site is minimally maintained now but you can get a flavour of this beautiful area of the Pyrenees.