A plastic igloo with unlikely tenants: Bears rehabilitated, returned to forest | TahoeDailyTribune.com

A plastic igloo with unlikely tenants: Bears rehabilitated, returned to forest

A pair of bears eye a photographer one day before their release into a man-made den near Truckee. One bear came from the D.L. Bliss State Park area; the other was found near Fallen Leaf Lake Road. Each cub was about 4 months old when it arrived at the wildlife care center.

Year-old female bear cubs returned to nature Friday. They were left to hibernate in a forest north of Truckee after spending about nine months learning what to eat at the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care in South Shore.

When the bears arrived in June at the wildlife rehabilitation center off Elks Club Drive in El Dorado County, they were about 4 months old, hungry and without their mothers.

One cub was found alone near Fallen Leaf Lake, its mother likely hit and killed by an automobile. It is not known what happened to the mother of the other cub, spotted roaming on the West Shore in D.L. Bliss State Park.

The cubs were screened by California Department of Fish and Game before staff at the wildlife center secluded them and began feeding them food they might encounter on their own.

The cubs were the sixth and seventh bears to be rehabilitated at the wildlife center, the only facility in the state that has successfully returned bears to the wild, according to Ann Bryant, executive director of the Bear League, an organization based in Homewood.

The rehabilitation program allows no human contact after a certain stage, keeps the cubs in a specially designed enclosure and provides them a steady supply of natural foods donated by the community.

While in captivity, one cub grew from 17 pounds to 95 pounds, the other went from 20 pounds to 110 pounds, said Cheryl Millham, executive director of Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care.

“They stopped eating around Christmastime,” said Bryant, who works closely with Millham. “Before then they ate fish, road kill, all different types of fruits and vegetables, grubs, acorns, chestnuts – anything natural that we could teach them that is food.”

The cubs didn’t like each other at first, but after a while they became companions. Millham watched their relationship evolve on video from three cameras installed in the bear enclosure.

“Fish and Game wanted to put the cubs in two separate dens, not in the same one. That would have never worked,” Millham said. “We watched them on surveillance cameras and they sleep really close to each other and they’ve been raised together. (Fish and Game) listened to me and got a larger igloo.”

Watching Fish and Game place the sedated bears in the forest in the igloo was bittersweet for Millham, who had been the animals’ surrogate mother for months.

“It was a fantastic experience,” Millham said. “Fish and Game picked a beautiful spot. They went into the den in perfect condition.”

The dog igloo used as the makeshift den was covered in snow. The hope is that the two bears will wake up in about a month and go out and look for food together.

The cubs’ chance for survival is good, Bryant said. Fish and Game collared the cubs, which should allow wildlife biologists to track them until they grow out of the breakaway collars.

Of the cubs it has had in its facility, Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care is only sure that one made a successful transition back to the wild. It was released in Yosemite and tracked with a collar. The only other cub rehabilitated by the center and collared by Fish and Game lost its collar, so it is not known how long the animal survived, Bryant said.

– Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com

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