A tiny black cub that lost its mother this fall near Kettle Falls is getting a rare shot at surviving to roam the northeastern Washington woods again as a wild bear.
It’s a hard-knock life for young orphaned wildlife. Most succumb to natural threats such as starvation or predators while a few are discovered by humans, forcing decisions on their fate.
“Wildlife agencies don’t have funding or facilities for all injured or orphaned wildlife, but in some cases we do,” said Madonna Luers, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman in Spokane.
The Kettle Falls black bear cub is getting a second chance because a number of factors fell into place.
Attracted to a deer carcass by a road, the cub was seen by passersby and reported to Fish and Wildlife officer Pam Taylor. Since it was hanging around the carcass rather than just passing through, Taylor was able to respond and capture the cub in a trap.
Born this year, the cub was too small to have any chance of surviving on its own, Luers said.
The agency had about three options in the Northwest for facilities that can care for a bear while keeping it wild enough for release back into the wild.
Calls were made. Room was found for the cub at a non-profit facility near Boise.
The bear was shuttled by different wildlife officers to Spokane and Clarkston where it was picked up at their own expense by volunteers from Idaho Black Bear Rehab of Garden City, Idaho.
“All of these rehabilitators are funded by private donors,” Luers said.
Key to the bear’s eventual survival in the wild is finding a facility that has at least one other bear on hand for socialization with animals rather than humans, said Rich Beausoleil, Washington’s bear and cougar specialist.
Other possible facilities included PAWS in Lynwood, Washington, and Snowden in McCall, Idaho.
But Idaho Black Bear Rehab had an opening – and another cub.
The Kettle cub, a male, has been paired with another orphaned cub, a female, at IBBR.
“As with most bears, he loves swimming in the big swim tub we have,” said Sally Maughan, certified wildlife rehabilitator and IBBR founder. “He is eating fish, elk, fruit, dry dog food, vegetation and willows.”
“We have rehabilitated more than 200 bears the past 26 years from Idaho and all the surrounding Western states,” she said.
The two cubs were just getting to know each other last week. “I would expect some serious wrestling and chase games in the near future,” she said.
Although she’s worked with a wide range of wildlife, Maughan said she’s helped raise awareness that bear rehab can be especially successful. The public is beginning to expect state wildlife agencies to send orphaned bears to rehabilitators whenever possible, she said.
An international study coauthored by Beausoleil and published this year by the Wildlife Society documented high rates of survival – 50 to 100 percent – among rehabbed bears.
The study is the first look into the 30-year-old practice of raising captive bear cubs in captivity until they can hibernate in real or artificial dens before being released the next spring.
The research has caught the attention of wildlife managers around the word, including Wayne Wakkinen, Idaho Fish and Game regional wildlife manager in Coeur d’Alene.
“We always questioned whether we were raising these bears only to release them and have them become problem bears or die anyway because they were too young or too naive to survive the next spring,” he said.
“But it looks like this is a pretty successful way to get black bear cubs through to the following spring, when their mommies would typically boot them off on their own anyway.
“Otherwise, they’d have to be put down. Black bears aren’t in big demand at zoos, where they can grow their own bears.”
The Kettle cub weighed 32 pounds when it was transferred to Idaho Black Bear Rehab. In three weeks the voracious pipsqueak has put on 30 pounds, Maughan said.
“And we hope to have it up to 100 pounds by the time it hibernates,” she added, noting that bears shy of sufficient weight to survive the five or six months of hibernation won’t hibernate.
While some rehabbed cubs are delivered during their hibernation to sleep off the winter in a natural den, the Kettle cub will be allowed to curl up in an artificial den before being returned to Washington for release next year.
The release will occur after the spring black bear hunting season, probably in June, she said.
“rehabilitators can give these cubs an extra margin for survival,” Wakkinen said. “These cubs will be naive when they come out of their dens. Being fat buys them some time until they figure out how to find their own food. If they come out of a den skinny, they’re pretty desperate.”
The Washington Fish and Wildlife “considers rehabilitation only for obviously orphaned cubs of the year that otherwise wouldn’t survive and that can be vulnerable to human habituation,” Luers said.
“We don’t even try to rehab habituated adult bears,” she said.
“But cubs haven’t done anything wrong and if we are able to give them a second chance at life, we do.”
All of the cubs released back into the wild as yearlings are ear-tagged and many are fitted with radio collars, Beausoleil said: “They add to the body of knowledge about bears.”
In 2007, IBBR’s biggest year for rehabilitations, the facility saved 53 bears at a cost of $43,000 raised in private funding, Maughan said.
The cost is small for a wildlife agency to assist at the front and tail ends of rehabilitating orphaned bears, Luers said.
“But the goodwill gained is huge,” she added, citing the well-publicized case of Cinder, the black bear cub saved from the 2014 wildfires in Central Washington. Cinder was treated, rehabbed and released this year.
“Plenty of other situations end in nature taking its course, but we don’t always have to go that route or euthanize critters when people want to help.”
“While orphaned cubs in rehab can be social with each other and their foster mom, black bear adults are naturally solitary creatures,” Maughan said.
“That makes these cubs perfect candidates for rehab. Once released, they lead solitary lives and generally don’t seek out people or need to socialize in the way other species sometimes do.”
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