Slovenia on collision course with Brussels over plan to cull bears

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The Independent Online

Slovenia is on collision course with the European Commission after announcing plans to cull 100 bears - one quarter of the population of the protected species in the country.

The decision to kill the animals has provoked concern in Brussels, which says it is warning the Slovenian authorities not to go ahead with the planned bear hunt.

The issue has prompted anger in Germany, where a brown bear was shot last month after the authorities decided it posed a potential danger to humans. The animal, dubbed "Bruno" by the German media, was the first wild bear to be sighted in Germany since 1835. Slovenia joined the EU in 2004 and its bears are strictly protected under the EU's habitats directive. But the Slovenian authorities say they have not received any official warning letter from the European Commission, and defended their decision to go ahead with the cull to manage the population.

The government said there were 400 to 700 animals living in the country, alarming residents, posing a nuisance to farmers and killing livestock. Officials said that brown bears had strayed into towns and villages in the south of the country, looking for food, and have even been sighted in the capital, Ljubljana.

A small number of the animals have been captured and resettled in other European countries. France took two brown bears this year, releasing one in the Haute-Garonne and another in the Haute-Pyrénées.

The Slovenian government, which grants annual permits for bear hunts, said that it planned to make 100 available this year.

The European Commission has argued that Slovenia's estimate of its brown bear population at between 400 and 700 is so vague that it suggests the welfare of the species is not being properly monitored. It also pointed out that, based on Slovenia's own figures, the cull could eradicate 25 per cent of the country's bears.

Barbara Helfferich, the spokeswoman for the European environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, said: "The commissioner has expressed his concern based on the information we have received from the Slovenian authorities, that they are about to allow 100 bears to be shot. We have doubts about the accuracy of the information we have received and would want no action to be taken by the Slovenian authorities until we have clarified the situation. It is possible that this action might be in breach of the law and that they could face infringement procedures if they went ahead."

There is little the Commission can do to stop the cull taking place, though it could subsequently open legal proceedings against Slovenia in the European Court of Justice.

Darija Dolenc, a spokeswoman for the Slovenian Environment Ministry, said: "We have so many bears and this is a big problem because they are living in a small area of our country. The population is growing and they frequently visit farms. The bear is such a nice animal but we have to manage the population because they could be dangerous if the population grows too much."

In Germany, where the fate of "Bruno" was followed closely, Slovenia's plans have provoked criticism. A German Green MEP, Hiltrud Breyer, has lodged a question in the European Parliament."Bruno" had been blamed for killing dozens of sheep. A pack of Finnish tracking dogs was brought in to capture the bear alive, but they failed to corner it.The Bavarian authorities then ordered hunters to kill it, saying the bear posed a threat to humans.

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