A Cozy Winter Den Goes a Long Way Toward Keeping a Bear Out of Trouble


Pop quiz: When is the best time to release an orphaned bear cub in the wild to prevent unhappy returns?

a) In the summer, when there are plenty of berries to eat.

b) In the winter, when there is nothing to eat.

Answer: b) In the winter.

"The idea is once they are released, they will hibernate, and when they wake up it will have been a good four to six months since they have seen a human," said John Thiebes, regional biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Back when bears were released in the summer, the results were awful.

"They would immediately go down and find rural homes, raid the garbage cans and try to find forage," Thiebes said.

But in four years of releasing bears in the winter, Thiebes has seen only one flunk and get shot by a homeowner for raiding garbage.

Thiebes oversaw the release this winter of four bear cubs raised by Wildlife Images, a wildlife rehabilitation center.

Unlike wild bears, none of the hand-raised cubs bolted for freedom when the doors swung open on their cages. One stuck to a road rather than go into the woods, sheepishly looking over its shoulder at the humans trying to chase it down a steep bank into the woods. Another ambled from a meadow into the trees after being pelted with snowballs.

Thiebes tracked down two others with a radio collar just an hour after their release, and found that they had already reverted to wild ways.

"We thought we saw them digging or building a den of some kind," he said. "As soon as we got within a certain distance, one ran up this ravine crashing through the brush like a wild bear. The other one started climbing this big tree. . . . It was impressive."

From a strictly financial viewpoint, it doesn't make much sense to spend the time and money to hand-raise orphaned cubs.

Unlike grizzlies, which are endangered in the lower 48 states, black bears are plentiful. When they lose their fear of humans and develop a taste for garbage picnics, they become dangerous nuisances.

But the cubs are so darned cute, and so many people are happy to donate the time and money to care for them, that there really is no alternative but to free the ones that can survive in the wild, said Dave Siddon, founder of Wildlife Images.

"There is nothing cuter than a baby bear," Siddon said. "It's not just the people who are dedicated conservationists. It's hunters, fishermen, hikers and bikers. We've had baby bears brought in by bear hunters."

Besides, he added, "There are so many bears in captivity, that there is no place to place bears in captivity."

Over the last 22 years, Wildlife Images has freed 56 bears.

Even after releasing the four bears, Siddon is still caring for 14, including Alaskan brown bears, black bears, a grizzly and Asian sun bears, all of which haven't been released for one reason or another.

The four were all orphans, Siddon said. One was found starving outside a small town. Another was seized from a pet store trying to sell it for $1,200. A third was confiscated from a private menagerie. The fourth was rescued from being sent to a "canned-hunt" ranch, where it would have been turned loose for a hunter to kill.

Siddon got the idea of releasing bears in the winter from John Beecham, head of bear and cougar research for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Beecham and regional wildlife biologist Jeff Rohlman wrote about their 20 years of research in the book, "Shadow in the Forest, Idaho's Black Bear."

The old way was to release the cubs in the spring or summer and hope for a good berry crop to sustain them while they learned to survive, Rohlman said. It was more expensive that way. Bears in captivity generally don't hibernate, so they have to be fed all winter. And there is no break in their association with humans.

In 1986, it occurred to Beecham and Rohlman to take advantage of bears' natural instinct to dig a den and hibernate through the winter.

They tranquilized the bears and put them in abandoned dens dug by other bears into hillsides or bases of stumps, hoping that when the drug wore off they would stay in the den until spring. Most did.

Since then, Rohlman and Beecham have learned that if they stop feeding the bears a week or so before release, they will get lethargic and be more likely to den up. They also found that artificial dens built of bales of straw and covered with snow work just as well as natural ones.

The key to success is finding a place where the bears won't run into humans for about a week while they learn to live in the wild. Even if they don't den up, they are less likely to encounter people when snow is on the ground.

Rohlman doesn't believe that the bears forget about humans during their winter sleep. "I think they find that a wild life is better than a captive life, and they lose their interest in people," Rohlman said.

Beecham and Rohlman said no other wildlife succeeds like bears when they are turned back to the wild.

"Coyotes, lions and things are basically meat eaters, and it is hard for us to teach them how to hunt and survive," Rohlman said. "A bear can eat anything, so you don't have to teach them a lot."

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