“We can clearly see the marks of his claws”, rejoices Pierre-Luigi Lemaitre, coordinator of the Pyrenean bear monitoring network, showing a tree trunk where one of them has marked his territory, at more than 1,200 m altitude.
The bark has been coated with a tar made from beech wood “to invite the bear to rub on it and leave hairs that we can analyze”, explains the agent of the French Office for Biodiversity. (OFB).
In order not to alter the genetic fingerprints, he puts on gloves, takes out an envelope and pliers which he sterilizes in the flame of a lighter. Then, he carefully removes the collection of the “hair trap”, made up of bits of barbed wire nailed to the trunk.
A few meters away, he will also examine a “photo trap” installed not far from the tree, in order to automatically capture images of the animals it attracts. The results are interesting: a bear passage was filmed.
Other clues, excrement, will be spotted thanks to a dog, whose contribution since 2015 has enabled us to collect five times more than before.
– Identify each bear –
All these elements, to which are added those transmitted by the 450 observers of the Brown Bear network, half of whom are volunteers, allow one of the “most precise monitoring in the world”, underlines Julien Steinmetz, coordinator of the management of the bear at the OFB.
Since the genetic profiles of most individuals are known, it is possible to monitor their movements and some of their behaviors that may be of interest to researchers.
Experts exchange this information with their Spanish counterparts, the bears moving over several thousand square kilometers, in the French Pyrenean departments, the Spanish regions of Catalonia, Aragon and Navarre, as well as the principality of Andorra.
During their four-hour outing that day in the steep beech, oak and softwood forests of the commune of Melles, Haute-Garonne, OFB officers also examine the vegetation on which the bear feeds. .
“He eats the beechnuts (of the beech) in the fall, when he makes reservations before hibernation,” says Julien Steinmetz, one of these fruits in his hand.
If the goal is not to see the animal up close, the two men often take out their binoculars to try to observe it from afar. “The bear must not detect us. It’s a more respectful and interesting way to see wildlife. We can see bears feeding or moving” normally, without human intervention, adds Pierre-Luigi Lemaitre .
This approach coincides with the instinct of this imposing mammal, which can measure up to 2.10 m and weigh 250 kg, but which “fears man and will do everything to avoid it”.
– Reality and fantasy –
The many bear reports are therefore cautiously received by the OFB. “You have to sort out the real things and the imagination. For example, people in a tent who hear growling and think it’s a bear, when it’s a boar or a fox,” he says. .
Once present everywhere in France, the brown bear has seen its population decrease over the centuries, due to persecution and the destruction of its habitat by human activity, to the point that it almost disappeared.
In 1995, there were only five individuals left in the Pyrenees. France then initiated a program to introduce bears from Slovenia. Eleven have since been introduced. With a record number of litters in 2020, the population has increased further: 70 were detected last year (9%).
Defended by the State and associations for the protection of biodiversity, this presence is however not to everyone’s taste.
Breeders, hunters and local elected officials protest regularly, arguing damage to the herds. In 2021, according to the OFB, the bear killed or injured 570 animals, mainly sheep, less than the previous year (636).