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Bear cubs rehabilitated for life in the wild

The clunk of a wire cage and a primal roar at the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Center Monday signaled a new start for two orphaned black bear cubs, the first bears ever rehabilitated for life in the wild in California.

State Fish and Game is releasing the 9- and 11-month-old bears at den sites Tuesday. One heads to Trinity County, where the 8 pound cub was found without his mother. At 115 pounds, the other – which was 15 pounds when he was brought into the center – will go to Yosemite National Park, where park officials were forced euthanize the mother after she had aggressive encounters with campers.

Following a bellow of disapproval, the “Trinity bear” was taken by state officials out of its newly built $25,000 enclosure on the grounds of the wildlife center in Meyers, the only home it has known for six months. Without the aid of a catchpole or tranquilizer, the cub was lured and trapped in a 20 inches by 26 inches by 48 inches cage.



As it shook nervously, wildlife center Director Cheryl Millham consoled it with a message of hope; “Take care, baby. Stay away from humans.”

Millham theorized that if the two bears “stay out of trouble for at least one month, they won’t be nuisance bears.”



The “Yosemite bear” took longer to corral, until Millham beefed up the tempting picnic in the back of the cage with more walnuts and fruit.

“My dream is that these bears will live a free and normal life. It breaks my heart they live in cages,” Millham said.

In attempts to get them to hibernate at the usual time for bears, the two cubs were taken off food for the last three weeks. A second thud of the cage proved the lure successful.

“They’re my kids. I know they’ll do great. They did everything they should have,” Millham said, with a tear in her eye as the two cubs were whisked away in Fish and Game vehicles.

Apparently so, the department’s bear specialist from the Rancho Cordova office said they’re in excellent shape for this type of test run.

“This bear cub is more than twice as heavy as a natural cub, and should have adequate nutritional reserves for surviving in the den over the winter,” Doug Updike said. The bears had been eating fish, acorns, walnuts, pecans, raspberries, and pears, to name a few of the desired foods. Millham even put honey on the bears’ tree branch and gave them pumpkins for Halloween.

For fun time, the cubs played together like two siblings. A bowling ball as heavy as the Yosemite bear when he was first brought into the facility offered some entertainment. First they protested being together, then apart. But they later grew on each other. Fish and Game hopes the bears will hibernate, wake up in the spring with instinctive foraging behaviors and stay away from humans and their garbage.

“If the cub has little human contact during rehabilitation, it has a better chance of not relying upon humans for food after it emerges from the den in the spring. The best chance for the cub is insured with good nutrition, which allows the cub to have adequate energy reserves to hibernate,” Updike explained.

He gives the bears a “slim to really good” chance of survival in the wild.

“Too many variables like nutritional state of the cub, quality of the den site, existing bear density, and the cubs’ experiences in the den all make predicting the chances of survival a difficult task. This bear cub is more than twice as heavy as a natural cub and should have adequate nutritional reserves for surviving in the den over the winter,” he said.

Most bears hibernate in December.

If all is successful, these bears could grow up to 300 to 400 pounds as adult males, Updike indicated.

To track the bears’ progress, they will wear collars that will eventually rot and fall off to compensate for the growing bear.

What’s Fish and Game’s primary concern?

“That it doesn’t get eaten by something else, which is highly likely, and that it stays out of trouble,” Updike said.

Black bears have doubled their numbers in the last 20 years, increasing their chances of running into humans. A current estimate of the population of adult bears is 22,000.

Before the agreement between Fish and Game and the Wildlife Center went into effect in May, orphaned bear cubs in California were either killed or sent to an out-of-state rehabilitation center before being released. There is one in Washington and another in Idaho.

Under Fish and Game policy, the cubs must be let go within 50 miles of where they were found.


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