Ibex suspended: Spain stalls on plans to return mountain goats to Pyrenees

Scheme with France to reintroduce the animals to the area has been put on hold

A male ibex in the Gredos mountains, in Ávila province, west of Madrid.
A male ibex in the Gredos mountains, in Ávila province, west of Madrid.PEDRO RETAMAR

The Spanish Environment Ministry has suddenly announced it is suspending cooperation with France on a scheme to introduce a close relative of the now-extinct Pyrenean ibex, or bucardo, to the Pyrenees.

On November 19, France announced a plan to introduce 160 goats from Spain's Gredos and Maestrazgo mountain ranges to the Pyrenees over the next seven years. In turn, the Spanish Environment Ministry said on December 18 that it was "undertaking a viability study on reintroducing the mountain goat in the Pyrenees."

But on January 2, the ministry suddenly denied the existence of any plan, distancing itself from the information available on the websites of French provinces in the mountain range, saying that "for the moment, the project is suspended due to technical problems."

The bucardo, or Capra pyrenaica, disappeared on the French side of the Pyrenees in 1910 after decades of intensive hunting. It survived in Spain thanks to the creation in 1905 of a royal hunting area for King Alphonse XIII in the Gredos mountains west of Madrid, where it bred with other goats.

The last Pyrenean ibex, known as Celia, was found dead in January 2000

In Spain there are currently between 60,000 and 100,000 of the Capra pyrenaica hispanica and pyrenaica victoriae sub-species, with their distinctive curled horns, to be found on the high ground that runs from the Maestrazgo mountains inland from Cadiz along to Tarragona, along with populations in the Gredos mountains, the Cantabrian mountains in Santander and Asturias, as well as in the Guadarrama mountains north of Madrid.

The bucardo had been declared a protected species in 1973, but by 1981 just 30 remained in their last foothold in the Ordesa National Park in the Aragon area of the Pyrenees.

The last specimen, a 13-year-old female known as Celia, which was being monitored, was found dead in January 2000 by park rangers near the French border with her skull crushed. Shortly before its death, scientists preserved skin samples of the goat in liquid nitrogen.

Using DNA taken from these skin samples, the scientists were able to replace the genetic material in eggs from domestic goats to clone a female Pyrenean ibex. It was the first time an extinct animal had been cloned.

Cloning is the only possibility to avoid the bucardo's disappearance"

Using a technique similar to the one used to clone Dolly the sheep -- which is known as a nuclear transfer -- the researchers were able to transplant DNA from the tissue into eggs taken from domestic goats to create 439 embryos, of which 57 were implanted into surrogate females.

Just seven of the embryos resulted in pregnancies and only one of the goats finally gave birth to a female bucardo, which died seven minutes later due to breathing difficulties, perhaps the result of flaws in the DNA used to create the clone. Other cloned animals, including sheep, have been born with similar lung defects.

Dr José Folch of the Center of Food Technology and Research of Aragon in Zaragoza led the research along with colleagues from the National Research Institute of Agriculture and Food in Madrid.

He said at the time: "The delivered kid was genetically identical to the bucardo. In species such as the bucardo, cloning is the only possibility to avoid its complete disappearance."

The Environment Ministry denies having worked with the French government on the scheme

Spain and France have been working over the last decade on repopulating the Pyrenees with ibex. The website of the Midi-Pyrénées region on the French side of the border currently has detailed information about the project, saying the intention is to introduce 160 ibex from the Gredos and Maestrazgo mountain ranges over the next seven years to two areas of the Pyrenees, describing the scheme as "an act of reparation for the damages inflicted by man on our natural heritage."

The website says cloning now offers "few probabilities of success" and that "the beauty of the species, its visibility, and the few problems it creates for human activities are factors that favor it being accepted by local populations."

The date for introducing the animals is supposedly set for later in 2013. Mountain goats are seen as a way of attracting greater visitor numbers to the area. Along with the reintroduction of bears, France sees the creation of a goat population as essential to reviving the Pyrenees' biodiversity.

Once the transfer of goats was complete, says the website, a 10-to-15-year phase would follow to monitor progress and, if necessary, add new animals to keep numbers up.

The Spanish Environment Ministry presented its plan to the State Commission for Biodiversity and Natural Heritage, which foresees the introduction of goats to Lleida and Navarre. However, the scheme has failed to garner the support of the regional governments involved. Aragon refused to participate and the Catalan government refuses to comment, though ministry sources say it is not enthusiastic. The Environment Ministry denies having worked with the French government on the scheme.

The French authorities say there were "inter-ministerial contacts between Spain, France and Andorra throughout 2012 to discuss setting up a common project in the Pyrenees to increase biodiversity, particularly regarding the reintroduction of the bucardo."

Another document says the job of capturing the goats and then distributing them would be the responsibility of the "Ministry of Agriculture, Environment, and Food," under which the environment portfolio is covered by this government.

The project would need Spain's approval because any animals released in France would obviously move into Spain eventually.

France's plans to reintroduce the ibex have not met with any opposition locally. Carlos Barrera Sánchez, the head of the local council in the Valle de Arán, an area of the Pyrenees that would be affected by the project, says: "We have talked to hunters and farmers and they say they have no concerns."

Barrera says local communities have not been kept fully informed of the plan, and that he only found out about the scheme 18 months ago, since when he has met with Spanish government officials.

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