A caravan of two snowcats and three snowmobiles dispersed in a long line across the snowy landscape, bound for a spot high in the hills this past Thursday. Loaded with hay and a kennel containing two young bears, the vehicles and their inhabitants were on a mission to release the bruins into the wild.
Officials from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) received help with the effort from the U.S. Forest Service and a local volunteer. Both bears — released west of Gunnison in game management unit 54 — are approaching their first birthday after being orphaned last year.
The bears — a male from Mt. Crested Butte and female from Pagosa Springs — subsequently were sent to CPW’s Frisco Creek rehabilitation center in Del Norte, where they remained through the fall.
In an average year, Frisco Creek will receive a dozen to 20 cubs between June and October. Once the bears become large enough to hibernate, they’re able to be self-sufficient, and CPW locates a suitable spot for release.
“Our goal is to get them out either right before hibernation and let them find their own den or to get them out during hibernation, so either way when they wake up in the spring they’re in a natural habitat,” explained Michael Sirochman, facility manager at Frisco Creek. “We hope they can start life fresh.”
Readying for release
Eventually, bears that are transported to Frisco Creek receive an ear tag, but wildlife managers at the facility do not name them.
“The whole point is to return these animals to the wild and leave the emotion out of it,” Sirochman said.
The bear from Mt. Crested Butte arrived following the euthanization of its mother, which had broken into a number of houses. The cub from Pagosa was discovered without its mother.
“After several days of monitoring, it was apparent the sow wasn’t around,” CPW District Wildlife Manager Brandon Diamond explained.
The two cubs bonded at Frisco Creek, which is not uncommon. Sometimes, the center will receive sibling groups of orphaned cubs which have already bonded.
“Both of these cubs were single orphans, and in that case usually within a week or two, they start to form strong bonds with other cubs in the pen,” Sirochman said. “Singles like this and pairs too, they eventually bond and after spending a summer together they’re like siblings.”
As a result, CPW officials decided to release the bears from Mt. Crested Butte and Pagosa into the wild together to increase their chances for survival.
“They learn together,” Sirochman said. “One bear discovers something and that benefits both of them. There’s nothing to say that they necessarily stay together, but in some cases bears have been seen later and they’re traveling in those pairs with their other ear-tagged companion.”
‘A rough start in life’
On Thursday, Diamond and his helpers placed the kennel in a quiet spot in the woods before covering it in hay, snow and branches to create an artificial den. In about a week, Diamond planned to sneak back to the location and quietly open the kennel’s door, allow the bears to exit the kennel on their own this coming spring.
“We need to give them a little time to settle in,” Diamond said. “When I’m thinking about a potential site, I’m thinking about as remote as possible from human activity. Putting this bear in wild country will give it the best potential to learn how to be a wild bear after a rough start in life.”
In Colorado, most sows and cubs will enter hibernation in mid-October and won’t emerge until April or May — remaining in their den for months without food or water. And research has shown that 75 percent of bears equipped with radio transmitters remain in the artificial dens until spring.
“We’re trying to be fair to them,” Sirochman said. “Those bears can leave that den, we can’t make them stay, but at least we’ve provided them a good, warm place to spend the winters should they so choose.”
As heart-warming as the effort to place the young bears back into the wild may seem, it could have been avoided entirely if not for human activity. Each year, numerous bears are euthanized across Colorado that learned the ease with which food can be found around people’s homes and businesses — in many cases, resulting in orphaned cubs.
Patrice Palmer, executive director of Lake City Friends of the Bears, partook in last week’s effort — helping to cut and place evergreen limbs to keep the bears warm for the remainder of winter. Her group operates a lease-to-own program for bear-proof trash receptacles and helps disseminate information about living with bruins.
Thursday’s outing was the fourth release of bears into the wild which Palmer has participated in.
“I think it’s just important to protect animals, especially bears,” she said.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)