Pyros, The Bear of The Pyrenees

 

By MATT MOFFETT

April 1, 2016 10:52 a.m. ET

VIELHA, Spain—As the spring sun thaws the icy crags of the Pyrenees Mountains, the telltale signs begin to appear again. Tufts of fur are snagged on barbed wire. Paw prints the size of a ping-pong paddle materialize in the mud. Ant hills are violently clawed.

Pyros, the alpha bear of the Pyrenees, is on the move again.

In 1997, Pyros was brought from Slovenia to this mountain range on the Spanish-French border to replenish a brown bear population on the verge of extinction. And boy did he ever get the job done. About three-quarters of the nearly 40 bears now roaming the Pyrenees are his offspring, say French and Spanish conservation officials.

Pyros stands nearly 7 feet tall on his hind legs and weighs more than 500 pounds. His amorousness has made him a living legend. The lumbering Lothario has mated with at least eight different females, including some of his own offspring.

Wildlife officials in Spain now say they want to introduce a new male bear onto Pyros’s domain, in the name of genetic diversity. That is providing ammunition not only for critics, who say the interloper’s arrival would be an affront to Pyros, but also for skeptics, who say he doesn’t stand a chance.

If all goes according to plan, a bear will be transported from Slovenia and released into the wild in May, officials from Spain’s northern Catalonia region say. Animal specialists say there is an urgent need for new blood. Pyros’s hold on the female bears, they say, poses a threat to the gene pool.

A 2012 scientific paper in “Galemys: Spanish Journal of Mammalogy” noted Pyros’s “breeding dominance” represents “a serious handicap.” Excessive inbreeding reduces genetic variation and, over time, leaves an animal population more vulnerable to diseases and deformities, specialists say.

“It’s like what happened to the royal houses of Europe that intermarried so much,” passing on infirmities such as hemophilia, explained Ivan Afonso, conservation director for the Catalan county of Val d’Aran. Pyros has bred with at least two of his daughters and one of his granddaughters.

Regional and county officials debate whether a younger bear can win a mating contest with the acknowledged master. Pyros is about 27 years old, and it is unusual for brown bears older than 30 to survive in the wild, said Santiago Palazón, a wildlife specialist for Catalonia’s regional government. “He’s been hanging on and hanging on and hanging on,” said Mr. Palazón. “But he’s reached the point of dying.”

Other Pyros watchers say the new bear’s sponsors may be underestimating their tall, dark and hairy hero. “He’s superman…a myth,” said Carlos Barrera, the head of the government in Val d’Aran, the heart of Pyros’s turf.

For the greater good of the bear community, the only sure solutions are either “killing [Pyros], sterilizing him or returning him to Slovenia,” said Mr. Afonso.

Thanks to his virility, Pyros may be the only bear anywhere with his own groupies. Spanish Pyros fans started a Twitter account under his name identifying him as the “father of all the bears.” French public television dubbed him “the stud of the Pyrenees” and a French newspaper likened him to Casanova.

A couple of years ago, Pyrenean officials did broach the idea of castrating Pyros. That trial balloon attracted media interest beyond scientific journals. “Randy bear faces the snip,” blared the headline in the U.K tabloid, Metro.

The proposal was dropped as being excessively cruel—as well as impractical, given the difficulty of capturing him.

Dire moves to curtail Pyros’s activity may be unnecessary, some specialists say, because there are signs the shaggy roué has lost a step. One indicator: Moonboots and Pepito, both sons of Pyros, fathered cubs in the past few years, Catalan officials say, challenging Pyros’s dominance.

Pyros “doesn’t move as fast and that opens up opportunity for younger males,” says French bear expert Jean-Jacques Camarra. Since Moonboots and Pepito carry Pyros’s blood, however, that doesn’t resolve the genetic quandary.

Some Pyros fans are a bit irked by the talk of casting Pyros aside for a newcomer with a shinier coat. Oscar Sabate, manager of the Bear Pizzeria in Vielha, nods admiringly toward a dining-room-wall portrait of Pyros, flanked by others of his progeny. “A bear like that deserves respect,” he says.

Hunting and urban encroachment reduced a once-thriving Pyrenees bear population to around a half dozen by the time French officials released Pyros.

Pyros has already outlived another breeder bear brought here from Slovenia in 2006. That bear, Balou, came accompanied by a P.R. campaign in which French actors Fanny Ardant and Gerard Depardieu were anointed his human “godparents.”

Balou was destined to be nothing more than a bit player. While Pyros was on the prowl during mating season, remote sensing cameras would catch Balou trailing in Pyros’s footsteps, conservation officials say. He was a father only once. Balou wasn’t only unassertive but unlucky. He was struck by lightning and fell to his death in a ravine in 2014.

Another of Pyros’s competitors, Nere, born in the Pyrenees in 1997, inexplicably wandered roughly 100 miles west, far from most other bears. He mated with the area’s lone female, who was later killed by a hunter. Nere has never returned to the central Pyrenees, home to most of the region’s bears, and lives in isolation near his son.

Mr. Afonso strains for a scientific explanation. He says perhaps Nere was scared off by Pyros, or it is also possible the bear is simply “foolish.”

Write to Matt Moffett at matthew.moffett@wsj.com

 

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