Farmers protest as France releases more bears in the Pyrenees
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Dozens of farmers and lawmakers stormed out of a meeting on Thursday with France's new environment minister after he confirmed that two more bears would soon be released into the Pyrenees mountains.
Some 40 brown bears currently roam the range between France and Spain after France began importing them from Slovenia in 1996 after the native population had been hunted to near-extinction.
The latest move to increase their numbers infuriated farmers who have long complained about the predators killing sheep and other livestock.
10-year 'Bear plan'
The addition of two more females was announced by former environment minister Nicolas Hulot last March as part of a 10-year "Bear plan" to increase their numbers to some 50 sexually mature bears.
Opponents had been hoping that following Hulot's shock resignation last month -- he accused President Emmanuel Macron's government of insufficient action on green causes -- his successor might roll back the plan.
But François de Rugy, after meeting with around 60 farmers and lawmakers in the southwestern city of Pau, told journalists the bears would be released "by early October".
The news prompted most of the participants at the meeting to walk out shortly after it started.
"What good is talking if the decision has already been made? We left," said Etienne Serna, the mayor of Aramits who acts as spokesman for an anti-bear association.
Meanwhile, around 200 shepherds and farmers who had refused to meet with Rugy held a protest in Asasp-Arros, a neighbouring village at the foot of the Pyrenees.
"Using all possible means, we will refuse the re-introduction of bears on our land, where they have no place," said Olivier Maurin, president of a local anti-bear group.
"And if we need weapons and rifles to make sure François de Rugy hears us, we'll use them," he said next to a teddy bear hanging from a noose with the words "Wanted: Dead or Toothless".
Police appeared to take the threat seriously, setting up roadblocks to the village and searching vehicles.
Environmental activists say the bears are necessary for ensuring the region's biodiversity, and point to recent elections of pro-bear mayors in several towns, despite the loss of hundreds of sheep and other livestock each year.
The government compensates farmers for any livestock deaths from bear attacks.
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