Releasing orphaned bears in fall sets cubs up for failure, says rehab centre

After a nearly eight year hiatus — due to government prohibitions — the Cochrane Ecological Institute (CEI) is overjoyed at the chance to save Alberta's orphaned black bear cubs. But, they worry government regulations, that see the bears released in the fall, are setting the cubs up for failure.

'These two cubs will be killed because they don't know how to find a proper den site'

Maskwa, left, and Charlie are currently being rehabilitated at the Cochrane Ecological Institute. (Submitted by the Cochrane Ecological Institute)

After a nearly eight year hiatus — due to government prohibitions — the Cochrane Ecological Institute (CEI) is overjoyed at the chance to save Alberta's orphaned black bear cubs.

But, they worry government regulations that see the bears released in the fall set cubs up for failure.

Clio Smeeton, president of the CEI, said this year they've taken in two orphaned cubs — Charlie and Maskwa (bear in Cree) — and the two love to climb trees, wrestle and, of course, snooze.

Knowing they have the chance to save these bears from what would have previously meant certain death, makes Smeeton happy, and she praises the provincial government for listening to the CEI and the people of Alberta who wanted to see bear cubs rehabilitated.

"How would you feel? I mean, they're safe," she said.

CEI president Clio Smeeton worries that by releasing the cubs in October, they won't know how to find a proper den site, and will be killed. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

But, as Charlie and Maskwa's October release date nears, Smeeton said she's becoming worried.

She believes that the fall release is simply too soon.

"If that should happen these two cubs will be killed because they don't know how to find a proper den site," she said.

Smeeton said she hopes the Alberta government will consider changing the rules, so that the CEI can keep the cubs, who would generally be with their mother until around 18 months old, until they are a year or older.

"If we keep them as we have kept 19 other bear cubs — until they're two-years-old — they learn how to make a den site and they learn because they spend their first hibernation with us," she said.

"And then we release them in the winter of their second year into an artificial den site in a release site, and that's very good because it means they will stay where they're put."

Smeeton said from her research, she has learned that of the 44 other bear rehab centres in North America, none of them release their cubs until they are 11 months or older.

Charlie and Maskwa chow down on some fruit and nuts in their enclosure at the Cochrane Ecological Institute. (Submitted by the Cochrane Ecological Institute)

Paul Frame, the province's carnivore specialist said the October release date was decided on after extensive research and by looking at best practices.

And they've learned something interesting.

"The survival of the animal is the same if you release it in the first year, versus in the summer of the second year," he said.

Frame said food scarcity will prompt the physiological response from the bears to go into hibernation.

"Bear cubs that have been orphaned have been documented successfully hibernating without their mother in the first year," he said. 

Further, Frame said it limits the chance of the bears become habituated to humans.

"The most difficult situation we could find ourselves in would be that one of these bears, or both of these bears, comes out of hibernation and hurts someone," he said. "Because they're used to humans and view humans differently than other wild bears," a situation Frame says would lead to certain destruction of the bear.

Charlie climbs in a tree at the Cochrane Ecological Institute's bear enclosure. (Submitted by the CEI)

Smeeton said another concern she has over the October release is that it coincides with bear hunting season.

But, Frame said that in most other jurisdictions with bear cub rehabilitation programs, a bear cub killed during hunting season is still considered a successful re-entry into the wild.

"That bear then lived and experienced a death as a normal bear would that is legally harvested in Alberta," he said.


About the Author

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary. Lucie most recently headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alberta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson

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