ST.-GIRONS, France — The big brown bear is rarely seen in the mountains, but there are hints of its looming presence: a paw-print in the mud, a sheep’s mangled remains, furtive video images captured by government cameras.
The nearly invisible bear haunts the shepherds who drive their flocks across the high Pyrenees, the sheep flecking the dark green slopes with patches of white and supplying France with savory cheeses and tender lamb.
Hidden by the omnipresent fog or glimpsed only from a distance, the predatory bear has driven some of these sheepmen from the high meadows, and they vow never to return.
“I’ve seen the carcasses,” said Christian Marrot, a sheep-raiser who was helping lead a flock through the streets of St.-Giron. “Now, I’m keeping mine below.”
Bears, sheep and humans are a volatile mix in these mountains. The combination has set up a classic French clash between the know-it-all state in Paris, guided by the stiff hand of the European Union, and one of France’s myriad microcultures.
The conflict is elemental: The French government is trying to restore the centuries-old brown bear population, which dwindled nearly to extinction by the 1990s, the victim of encroaching humanity and hunting.
The shepherds are not interested in the bear as “an element of the natural heritage in the Pyrenees,” as a government brochure puts it. They see their sheep being eaten, in sizable numbers.
If the bears are a hidden part of the landscape, their sheep prey are the opposite.
Every June, shepherds spend two days parading their flocks through area villages. In St.-Girons, citizens came to their windows, smiling, to watch 800 sheep stream through this gray provincial town. The main street became a sea of woolly white sheep, baahing and nuzzling their handlers to the delight of children watching open-mouthed from the sidewalk.
A shepherd yelled out “Ah-to!” to encourage the scrambling sheepdogs to keep order.
As the shepherds see it, the bears have pitted bureaucrats against peasants.
“They’re taking surveys in Paris about our life here in the Ariège,” grumbled Pierre Fort, 74, a sheep farmer tending his flock in the town’s streets, referring to the French department where most of the bears live. Each one of his animals had his initials stamped on its backside.
“They didn’t ask us if we wanted the bears here,” said Mr. Fort, his black beret clamped down on his head. He lost 35 sheep to the bears last year. “Too much,” he said. “It’s become impossible.”
This fall the government plans to introduce two more bears to the existing population of 43. A court ruling in March gave it little choice, after years of foot-dragging because of local opposition.
France was not living up to its commitment to reestablish the bears nor to a European Union mandate on biodiversity, the court ruled.
“France has an obligation, under the European Union directives,” said Alain Reynes, who heads a pro-bear association that was a plaintiff in the case. “The French state was forced to act.”
Despite the opposition, officials have been trucking in anesthetized bears from Slovenia for more than 20 years, releasing them in the mountains, then tracking them with great solicitude.
They issue lavish reports about the bears’ lifestyle, assign multiple wildlife agents to watch over them, film them nuzzling forest trees and give each a cuddly name, like Callisto or Cannellito or Caramellito.
The sheepmen grumble about that, too. In the old days, the bear was addressed simply and respectfully as “lo moussu,” or “the mister,” in local dialect.
The Slovenian bears have adapted to their new French surroundings as best they can. But the shepherds say these Central European animals don’t play by the same rules as the more civilized French bears of old, and are more prone to eat their sheep. They are tired of mourning over the bloodied remains of animals that are like family members.
“These Slovenian bears are much more opportunistic,” said Robin Cazalé, a farmer who lost three sheep to the bears last month.
The numbers back the belief that the bears are becoming more of a menace.
Bear attacks on sheep increased 46 percent in 2017, compared with 2016. Some 464 sheep were killed or wounded by bears, the greatest number since the bear-import program began in 1996.
Dozens of sheep, frightened by marauding bears, ran to their deaths off high cliffs last year, some 260 in all.
“I’ve lost half my flock,” said Mr. Marrot, the sheep owner who no longer goes to the mountain. “It’s not worth it. Let people work in peace.”
Tempers are rising in the Pyrenees over the issue. In the last year there have been demonstrations, arrests and gunshots in the air. The tension is likely to increase before the two new bears are dropped into the area in September. While bear hunting has been forbidden since 1962, the shepherds are threatening to ignore the ban.
A clandestine video of masked and hooded gunmen warning that bear hunting would begin again circulated widely, infuriating the local préfete, Paris’s top representative in the Ariège.
The bears are “a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads,” said François Thibaut, a former shepherd who said he had been losing 40 to 50 animals a year to the bears before giving up several years ago going to the mountain pasture with the animals.
“It’s a feeling of powerlessness,” said Mr. Thibaut, who now raises sheep in a cooperative. And that, that is very, very stressful. That breaks you, completely.”
In June, the police summoned three sheep breeders for questioning after shots were fired as wildlife agents were examining dead sheep for signs of a bear attack at Le Saleix, 60 miles from here.
The French government, the wildlife agents and the bear associations periodically declare only a minority of sheep farmers are against the bears, that most of the population supports them, that damage is relatively minor and that the owners are fully indemnified for any losses. No humans have been attacked by the bears, which typically range from 350 to 550 pounds, since the repopulation program began.
But all that discounts the psychological toll the bears have taken on these shepherds. They describe being at the mercy of the fog that envelops these mountains for hours, hiding the flock and allowing the bear to strike unseen.
In the period when he was losing many animals, “I was in a depression,” Mr. Thibaut said. “They always get the best ones.”
Mr. Cazalé once saw a bear on the mountainside “calmly eating one of my beasts,” he said. “It was like seeing your dog being eaten.”
The bear, Mr. Cazalé added, “saw me, he was mocking me.”
The way the bears feed also disturbs the farmers.
“It’s madness,” Mr. Cazalé said. “They only eat a little. They don’t kill. It’s painful, especially if you know the beasts.”
“When you see that, it’s hyper-violent,” Mr. Thibaut said. “They are still alive.”
The sheepmen fear the bears are ultimately attacking not only their flocks, but their way of life in the Pyrenees.
“The state needs to find a solution,” Mr. Cazalé said. “Because pretty soon they will have to release men in these mountains, not the bear.”