Motorway project poses threat to Pyrenean bears: Conservationists battle to protect animal's habitat as French-Spanish tunnel link sounds death-knell, writes Leonard Doyle

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The Independent Online
THE FATE of the last Pyrenean brown bears hangs in the balance because of a controversial European Community-funded project to blast a tunnel through the pristine valley of the Aspe, creating a new motorway link between France and Spain. An international campaign to protect the bears has come up against the centrepiece of the EC's master-plan to bring the Iberian peninsula up to the same economic level as the heartland of the Community with the help of improved infrastructure links.

For the past four years conservationist organisations in Paris, Madrid, London and New York have campaigned to have the project scrapped in favour of a plan to upgrade a disused railway tunnel through the scenic mountain pass. In France, where protests have been loudest, President Francois Mitterrand interceded yesterday to pardon a Pyrenean mountain guide who was jailed for the ferocity of his attacks against the project.

The ecologist Eric Petetin, known to the Greens as France's only political prisoner, was becoming a political liability. Jailed for a month in May, he got a further 14-month sentence when his release date came up. The court added earlier suspended sentences for stopping traffic and hindering work on the road tunnel, which was going ahead without an environmental-impact study. Construction has since been halted, pending a government decision.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) says the plight of the brown bear (Urus arctos) in Western Europe, and particularly France, is catastrophic. The only remaining population of bears in the western Pyrenees can be counted on the fingers of two hands, due to road building, forestry and hunting.

Paris, more interested in economic links with Spain than the cause of the bears, has shown little interest in their fate. However, the proposed motorway and road tunnel at the town of Somport, linking Pau in France to Saragossa in Spain, would be be the death-knell of the bears, scientists say. The roadworks and the enlarged tunnel would break up the bear's habitat even more and the roar of traffic would further threaten the solitary creatures' chances of survival.

Throughout Western Europe the brown bear seems to be heading for extinction. They disappeared in Bavaria in 1836 and the last bear in the French Alps died in 1937. About 100 bears live in the Abruzzo National Park in Italy, where they attract a million visitors a year.

Spain's remaining 80 brown bears are threatened by another EC-funded project, to build a dam in the Vidrieros valley, in the north of the country.

The Spanish bears live in two groups and the fear is that if they are further broken up by construction projects, the gene-pool will be too small to sustain them and they will disappear within decades.

As the rest of Western Europe struggles to preserve their bear populations, the Scandinavians have to cull them periodically. Scattered among the vast forests between Sweden, Norway and Finland there are thought to be several thousand bears. Though protected by law, they often attack sheep and reindeer and the authorities sometimes cull them.

There is no shortage of willing hunters in Scandinavia and more than a hundred men recently applied for two rare positions as official bear-hunters in Norway. (Photographs and map omitted)