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The capercaillie, a rare bird abandoned by the state

In France, the capercaillie is struggling. Admittedly, this graceful mountain galliform is still there: fan-shaped black ebony tail, bluish reflections of the crop, carmine comma highlighting the eye, the male, which can weigh up to 5 kg, still walks on the edge of coniferous forests. , preferably in bushes of blueberries, a fruit that plays an important role in adult and chick feeding, camouflage and thermal cover ». It is therefore not surprising that the last capercaillies in France are found in the Pyrenees where the little bay, which is also a delight for bears, is picked up on their claws all summer long.

But in this massif where mating takes place in winter and spawning in spring, the population is declining. It fell from nearly 7,500 individuals in 2004 to just over 5,000 in 2019. A decline with an annual loss of 2 % », documents a report on the situation of the species in the Pyrenees, produced by scientists from the Expert Committee for Adaptive Management (Cega). Freely accessible since the end of August on the Researchgate site, this document notes that over the past 15 years, the number of males on leks [zones de reproduction où les coqs paradent pour séduire les poules] has eroded about 20 % […] This highlights that conservation efforts undertaken in recent years have not been effective enough to stem the negative population dynamics. » In France, where it has disappeared from the Alps, and almost from the Jura and the Cévennes, the capercaillie is classified on the national red list as vulnerable ».

The capercaillie has disappeared from the Alps and is threatened in the other French mountain ranges. © FNE Midi-Pyrenees

Ideally, this Cega document, supported and mobilizing the best specialists, should have been submitted to the Ministry of Ecological Transition. Who would have used it to try to achieve the objective set by the national action strategy in favor of the capercaillie defined in 2012: Stop the decline of populations to move towards a good conservation status of the species » over 10 years. But in France, the tools to support the safeguarding of biodiversity are hardly better than the capercaillie and Cega has not submitted the final version of this modeling report to the services of Barbara Pompili.

Indeed, on June 6, Aurélien Besnard, a research biologist newly appointed to the presidency of Cega, resigned, for lack of agreement with the ministry on a rebalancing of the composition of the committee (read our box below). In the aftermath, other members of the committee also resigned, taking care, in the absence of a final version at that time, to submit the preliminary report on the capercaillie to the ministry. The idea was to show that, when it went dormant, Cega was well capable of producing quality analyzes with an objective opinion based on scientific data. », explains Guillaume Bal, from the National Museum of Natural History, scientific secretary of Cega. The ministry announced the suspension of the committee’s work to its members by letter on June 29.

The danger of cables and fences

This report on the capercaillie shows, however, all the interest of such a committee. Far from overwhelming the hunters alone, the co-authors thus believe as the reduction of mortality related to collisions with linear infrastructures arranged in mountain environments (ski lift cables, power lines, fences) » is today the priority measure for safeguarding the galliforme. The capercaillie is a heavy bird that flies quite fast, rather at dusk when visibility is less: as a result, many kill themselves in fences and ski lift cablesexplains Emmanuel Ménoni, of the French Office for Biodiversity (OFB), co-author of the report and French bird specialist on which he has been working for more than 30 years. Hunting tables are now rather insignificant. If we managed to raise the female survival rate by even three points, the population would be stabilized. » For this, it is necessary above all to make visible the cables and fences that scar the massif. These visual cues allow the bird to deflect its flight and this has been known to reduce mortality by 80 %. But today, only 25 % of the cables and only a hundred kilometers of fences out of the 1,100 concerning the favorable habitat of the capercaillie and the ptarmigan are visible in the massif. We still need resources »he said.

It is even an emergency: the Population report Pyrenees 2021 from the Mountain Galliform Observatory (GMO), published on September 6, confirms a tendency to reduce the number of roosters on the massif » rated at 12.3 % over 12 years. And gives a very bad reproduction index for 2021: 0.6 young per hen. According to the national capercaillie strategy of 2012, if this index is less than 1, hunting is not authorized. This is what is happening this year: in Ariège, for example, the most sampler » with the Hautes-Pyrénées, the prefect signed an order on 1ᵉʳ October stipulating that the quota of sample » capercaillie and ptarmigan will be nil.

Hunting is not allowed when the reproduction rate of the capercaillie is insufficient. © FNE Midi-Pyrenees

There will be no capercaillie hunting this year »welcomed Thierry de Noblens, administrator of the FNE Midi-Pyrénées, which launched a petition on the subject. The environmental activist focused his efforts before the administrative court on the ptarmigan and the gray partridge, two other birds in the sights of Pyrenean hunters. He is a gender specialist. Since March 2011, his association and others (the Ariège Ecological Committee, Nature in Occitanie, FNE 65 and Groupement Ornithologique du Roussillon) won all of the 49 lawsuits brought against the capercaillie. So many defeats for hunters and the ministry, the most resounding of which was the decision of the Council of State in November 2018 to reject an appeal by the ministry aimed at restoring the authorization to take a single specimen.

Today, capercaillie harvests are minimalhe acknowledges. But hunting remains a very voluntary actor: even when it lowers its harvesting levels, it is hunting that gives the the on game species at the ministry. What I blame the hunters most for is not having been with us in recent decades in the fight against mountain developments, ski resorts, high-voltage lines », which have damaged the habitat areas of the galliforme. And to add the impossible census of injured birds or those dying of exhaustion to flee hikers and skiers.

So many facets of the thick back of the capercaillie — and beyond that, birds game » — which deserve to be rigorously documented to improve the situation. For example by an independent committee of scientific experts, supported by the ministry.

At Cega, the resigners found that science did not infuse enough

Why did Aurélien Besnard resign on June 6 from the presidency of Cega, which he had just recovered after the departure of Patrick Duncan? ? I wanted to be replaced as a simple member of Cega by another academic or university member and that the vice-presidency also be attributed to an academic »he answers Reporterre. Of them terms » not extravagant but on which it was not heard.

Unnoticed, this big failure is nevertheless eloquent. Created by a decree of March 5, 2019, the Cega, supposed to be composed of experts recruited on academic excellence »finally brought together six university experts, six representatives from the hunting world and two from the Bird Protection League (LPO). A composition betraying the difficulty of the French power to keep a good distance from the still very intense lobbying of the hunters. Hunters consistently issued counter-notices which were considered by the ministrylaments Aurélien Besnard. On the Eurasian curlew, we said that the hunting data was not precise enough, we could not, as it stands, continue to authorize it. Well, the ministry considered that the Cega did not have enough elements to prohibit hunting… that is to say the opposite of our opinion ! » The resigning president ensures that, from the beginning, the balance of power internally poses a problem and that the ministry has always refused to recast Cega on more scientific bases ». Contacted several times by Reporterreby email and telephone, the Ministry of Ecological Transition did not answer our questions.

The political interferes too much and the parties are in permanent conflict. »

Beyond the future of the committee, it is the way in which France practices adaptive management that raises questions: consisting in adjust the harvesting of a species according to the state of its population and its dynamics »as summarized by the National Hunting Federation (FNC), adaptive management can prove to be a relevant tool for maintaining species populations at a good level. It is still necessary that each actor remains in his place. In the international commissions, there is a big separation between politics and science on adaptive management with commissions where there are only scientists and where hunters and environmental associations only have the status of observer », notes Guillaume Bal. France opted for a wobbly mix of genres, immediately installing Cega in a precarious balance » which lasted barely two years. Adaptive management needs goals set by politicians, not scientistsabounds Aurélien Besnard. And the role of a committee such as Cega must be to provide the elements enabling these objectives to be achieved. But in this phase, politicians and stakeholders (hunters and environmentalists) must step back from the process. I don’t think we’re ready for that in France: politics interferes too much and the different parties are in constant conflict. »

A situation in which the ambivalence of politics is preeminent. Evidenced by the last weeks where power has passed in a few days from a vibrant We are behind on biodiversity, we have to catch up » (Emmanuel Macron, September 3 in Marseille, at the congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature) to the public consultation of decrees authorizing traditional hunts of threatened birds.

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