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French mayors rally to demand removal of Pyrenees bears

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Toulouse (France) (AFP)

Around 100 mayors and other officials from towns on the French side of the Pyrenees mountains protested on Tuesday to demand the removal of all bears, saying the re-introduction of the predators has threatened shepherds' livelihoods.

"There's no longer any place for bears," Henri Nayrou, council head for the Ariege area, told the gathering in Toulouse, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.

"It's awful. We're going to have problems and I fear the worst," he said.

Shepherds and farmers have been up in arms since the government brought in two more brown bears from Slovenia last October, the latest since France began to re-populate around 20 years ago a species that had been hunted to the brink of extinction.

Around 50 bears now roam the mountains that separate France and Spain, mainly in the Ariege region.

Environmental activists say the animals are integral to preserving a fragile ecosystem, and are emblematic of a government plan announced in July to shore up biodiversity, which is under threat from human activity and climate change.

But local farmers say they are increasingly attacking their flocks, and that compensation is insufficient to staunch devastating financial losses.

"We're unanimous in demanding the removal of bears from the Ariege Pyrenees. This is a cry to the state: Hear us in Paris!" said Philippe Lacube, head of the Ariege chamber of agriculture.

Authorities say 214 requests for compensation have been lodged so far this year, up from 167 in the same period last year, and just 53 in 2015.

Around 640 sheep have been killed this year, mostly after plunging off cliffs while trying to flee bears.

"It's an exponential increase" as the bears multiply and expand into new areas, Lacube said.

The growing bear population, like a burgeoning wolf population, has become a source of bitter conflict pitting farmers against the authorities and animal rights activists.

Shepherds in particular fume at the government's suggestion to keep flocks locked up at night, saying it would end the traditional summer pasturing on the higher slopes.

Officials have increased compensation for killed livestock and pledged to halt bear re-introductions, unless one is killed by hunters or farmers trying to scare them away.

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