Good Question: Does Rehabbing Bears Work?
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SILT, Colo. – It’s a modest house with a couple of outbuildings and a yard full of this and that, like many in the rural mountains. Only this one has cages. Great big cages. And the closer you look, the more you realize those aren’t domesticated animals.
The Pauline Schneegas Wildlife Foundation is a place where a lot of wild animals end up. Colorado Parks and Wildlife sends bears.
Sometimes they are tiny cubs that nurse from a bottle, sometimes they are 100 pound-plus young bears eating 10 to 15 pounds of food a day.
The bears are here to rehab. They’re orphaned bears, and many times they are orphaned because their mothers have led them into trouble — breaking into homes, killing livestock or posing a danger to humans that is ultimately often human-caused.
In addition, the Schneegas Foundation is one of the places where the state takes cubs orphaned after mother bears suffer accidental deaths.
“Those animals are going to die in the wild,” said John Broderick, terrestrial programs manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Really you’re talking about orphaned cubs and those cubs and those cubs in a natural situation are dependent on the female until they’re 1 year old.”
“I think they told me I’ve had about 150 or 60,” said Schneegas executive director Nanci Limbach.
The techniques they’ve developed are pretty simple. Feed them. That’s the vast majority of what they do.
“We have to have them be at least 50 pounds in order to go into hibernation or they don’t have enough body fat to be able to survive the winter,” said Limbach. “These guys basically sleep most of the day because they have a free food source, so it’s not like they have to go out and look for food every day.”
They do not befriend the bears or name them. These bears will be best served if they are wary of humans.
After the bears are known to be healthy and putting on weight they are transferred to cages on remote property where they come by to feed them only about once a week.
What they found they cannot do is re-educate adult bears. It just doesn’t work.
“By the time a bear is 3 or 4 if it has learned to break into garbage cans, it’s going to continue to do that,” said Limbach.
The state will sometimes relocate and adult bear and cubs in the wild if the trouble it has gotten into is not serious — like wandering into an urban area. But when bears are caught going after human food, officers usually put the adult down.
Adult bears are in no need of being fed, so rehab is not needed. And re-conditioning the bears to stay away from human sourced food is usually not successful.
“It seems to work with the cubs,” said Limbach. “They didn’t have a home range.”
Adult bears that have gotten into garbage or have learned to seek food around humans will often go right back after they are relocated.
Broderick tries to keep track of Colorado’s bear population. Estimates of the number of bears in Colorado are currently being re-done. Broderick thinks the new estimates could show there are as many as 16,000 bears in Colorado.
As a territorial animal, when bears are moved they can often end up in conflict with another, the outcome can be fatal.
“All you’re really doing at that point is removing it from the situation that is most either dangerous for the people or for the bear.”
“It’s kind of weird — the first years we did it we weren’t sure whether it would work or whether they would lose that. A lot of it has to do with where they get released at.”
After the bears are fattened enough at Schneegas, they are placed in hibernation in a den made by wildlife officers. They are hauled out in the dead of winter on the sleds pulled by snowmobiles to a place as far as possible from humans.
Getting the bear into a small enclosure and then hauling it through the woods can’t be a pleasant ride. But that may be a good thing.
“If they’re out there in the wild and they see a human being, they’re going to go, ‘You know, last time I was around anything that even looked like that, it was poking at me, it was yelling at me,’” Schneegas Wildlife board chairman Al King said.
The tranquilized bears are placed in the dens, covered and left in the quiet woods. They continue hibernation until March when they emerge just like a yearling bear.
The dens are placed in areas where there are natural food sources nearby, like aspen shoots. The bears then move on to grasses.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife set up a timelapse camera near the den created for two cubs north of Silverthorne this winter.
The images captured show the remarkable emergence of the cubs and their initial activities. (Watch a video showing a timelapse with all of the images, courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.)
Bears coming out of hibernation don’t eat right way, so for several days the bears relax, cavort and play.
Broderick thinks the rehabbing is a success.
“I know 70 different bears that I’ve worked on and of those I only know four that we have known fates on. One was actually electrocuted. As a yearling bear it climbed up a pole in a residential area and was actually electrocuted. Another made it two years. We released it over in the Road Flats area in Western Colorado in the Roan Plateau area, two years later it was killed in Steamboat in a conflict situation being that was near a school,” he said.
Another bear was killed by a farmer when it got into some crops and another died when it was hit by a motorcycle.
“So if you look it at that point we have a 94 percent success rate because those animals have to some degree at least they made it out of rehab in healthy condition and were released to the wild,” Broderick said.
For the bears that come through rehab, those are pretty good odds, considering otherwise they’d be dead.