for National Geographic News
Brown bears, once a common sight in the pine forests of France's Pyrenees Mountains, are rarely glimpsed by hikers and herders these days.
Threatened by shrinking habitats and indiscriminate hunting, the bears' numbers have dipped into the high teens, down from hundreds only a century ago (wallpaper: Alaskan brown bear).
In response to conservationists' concerns, the French government drew up a plan last fall to release five Slovenian bears in the Pyrenees in hopes of establishing a larger breeding population.
But the program is meeting staunch resistance from local farmers, who fear the bears will make a habit of dining on cows and sheep housed in outdoor corrals.
"This is shameful," Sylvie Bachy, a cow farmer in the Pyrenees town of Nistos, told the Associated Press. "War has been declared."
According to news reports, the battle between biodiversity advocates and livestock protectors became violent before and after the April release of two female bears, Franska and Palouma.
Angry protesters in the village of Arbas locked the pro-bear mayor into the town hall. And eyewitnesses report finding bear-attracting honey jars containing bits of broken glass scattered in the forest.
More peaceful protesters rang cowbells and donned T-shirts reading "No to the bears!"
France's highest administrative court ruled this week that the repopulation will be completed on schedule, even if that means smuggling bears into the forest in covered trucks to avoid protests.
Bears as Scapegoats?
Brown bears have a carnivorous reputation, but their diet is naturally about 80 percent vegetarian, according to WWF, the international conservation group.
Occasionally the bears eat small mammals, fish, and insects for extra protein (brown bear fun facts).
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