Reintroduced illegally on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, beavers have crossed into France

Extirpated from Spain long ago, by the start of the 20th century the beaver was destined to disappear from France as well. At that time there were only around a hundred individuals, concentrated in the lower reaches of the Rhone. Protection started in 1909 and since then the beavers have been working hard. The  population is estimated at over 14,000; almost half of France has been recolonised.  But, despite being reintroduced into the upper Garonne catchment area from 1977, beavers haven’t progressed far SW towards the Pyrenees. Perhaps surprisingly there have been no official projects to reintroduce them directly.

Distribution of beavers in France in 2017 [source: ONCFS]
Distribution of beavers in France in 2017 [source: ONCFS]

Then in 2005 a biologist working on the banks of the river Aragón (Spain) noticed tree trunks with teeth marks. It later transpired that the beavers had been smuggled in from central Europe in March 2003 and secretly released. The details are vague but the authorities suspected the activist Olivier Rubbers, who later admitted his involvement.

“If they had crossed the Pyrenees [of their own accord], we wouldn’t have anything to say except to be happy,” said Miguel Urbiola, director of the Natural Environment department of Rioja, reported in El País.  But “We cannot tolerate this precedent. If we don’t eradicate this colony any environmentalist will be able to release any animal they like.”

The local authorities put together a plan to eliminate this protected animal. They argued that the presence of beavers might also menace the habitats of the otter and the very fragile European mink population. Both the Spanish government and the EU authorities agreed, with the latter curiously arguing that the animal was ‘outside its normal distribution’.

Between 2008 and 2013 a hundred beavers were captured in Navarra at a cost of 131,000€. The Rioja region removed 96. But all became too costly. “We don’t have sufficient funds and have other priorities,” said the authorities in nearby Aragón. But by 2014 it was estimated that there were between 450 and 650 still at large in Navarra alone.

Source: La Ballena Blanca, no 6 April 2016, pp. 68–73.

The latest news is that one of the Spanish beavers is seeking ecological asylum in France, on the river Nive (Pyrénées-Atlantiques).

Photo by Jan Erik Engan on Pixabay