Orphaned bear Charlie shot just 12 days after being released into wild

An orphaned bear that was released into the wild just two weeks ago was shot and killed after it wandered near children on private land.

Alberta Environment and Parks investigating why bear was behaving unusually

Maskwa, left, and Charlie, right, were rehabilitated at the Cochrane Ecological Institute. Charlie was shot and killed less than two weeks after being released into the wild. (Submitted by the Cochrane Ecological Institute)

An orphaned bear that was released into the wild just two weeks ago was shot and killed after it wandered near children on private land.

The bear's death has sparked an investigation by the province, and concerns from the facility that rehabilitated it about how it was released.

Two orphaned black bear cubs, Charlie, a male, and Maskwa, a female, were taken in by the Cochrane Ecological Institute in 2018 when they both weighed under 10 kilograms.

The two bears, now 16-months-old, were released separately on June 20 in different remote areas of southwestern Alberta where they were initially found. Both were fitted with radio collars to track their movements.

The male bear, Charlie, travelled about 120 kilometres to the area where he encountered humans, and was shot and killed on Monday.

The female bear, Maskwa, is fine. She stayed in the area where she was released and is continuing to be monitored. 

No charges will be laid in the matter, Alberta Environment and Parks said in an emailed release on Tuesday.

Debate over habituation, release time

But the government said it had concerns about the abnormal behaviour the male bear demonstrated, including how habituated he seemed to people before he was killed, something the rehabilitation centre that cared for the bear disputes.

"Typically, we do not expect a young black bear to wander or remain near humans. Bears that become habituated to humans start to see us as a source of food and become dangerous," said Rob Simieritsch, a regional resource manager with Alberta Environment and Parks.

"Given the circumstances around its death, we will be reviewing the data collected since its release, as well as reviewing its rehabilitation experience."

The bears were the first to be taken in after an eight-year provincial ban on rehabilitating orphaned bears was lifted.

The Cochrane Ecological Institute, which took in the bears, had successfully pushed the province for a delayed release, saying the bears would have a greater chance of survival if they were older. 

The province delayed the release from October until summer due to poor weather conditions, but Clio Smeeton, the institute's president, said that was still much too soon.

"If you look at 24 to 26-month-old bear cubs, they have spent two periods of five months hibernating, not having anything to do with people …. The first winter, they over winter with their mom, the following winter is when we would release them and always have released them.

"And if you want statistics, there's an 80 per cent chance of their survival [in winter]. If you do it in the summer there's a 55 per cent chance of survival," she said, citing research that was done in the U.S.

Jess Sinclair, press secretary for the minister of environment and parks, said the institute will not be allowed to take in bears while an investigation takes place.

We wanted to release as we have released previously and has been proven to work, but the government didn't want that.- Clio Smeeton, Cochrane Ecological Institute

"Unfortunately, if a bear is habituated, this is the outcome," Sinclair said. "All of our biologists tell us that after the bears reach the point of self-sufficiency, the earlier they're released, the better. Unfortunately, due to extenuating circumstances, that wasn't possible in this case. But it's definitely something we will be taking very seriously into the future."

But Smeeton suggested that the province's investigation should take a hard look at its own policies, including how the bear was released — which the institute had nothing to do with, she said.

"We wanted to release as we have released previously and has been proven to work, but the government didn't want that and they wouldn't permit us to have anything to do with where the bears went or how they were let go," she said.

The institute never lost a bear during its releases from 1985 to 2012, before the ban on taking in cubs was put in place.

Smeeton criticized how the release was handled, saying the bears had a sibling-like relationship, and that the male bear was released alone in an area where grizzlies could have put pressures on the young animal to keep moving.

Went to check out traps

She also said the government was supposed to evaluate the bears for habituation before release, but that never happened.

Instead, the night before the bears were transported, traps were brought in by government workers by hand because a tractor had broken down, and they then stood outside the enclosure after leaving the traps inside, Smeeton said.

"The male bear, the one that was shot, came down from his tree, and he went to check out the traps …. One of the guys there took it as the bear was approaching him and not the trap," she said. "And so based on that, the animal was 'habituated.'

"They were not habituated, but the perception of this one person is that they were and using that they are going to evaluate what happened, so I don't know how they can do that in an unbiased fashion."

The government expects its investigation into the bear's death to take one month.

With files from Lucie Edwardson


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