As soon as the Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers slide open the door to the cage, the two black bear cubs contained within it went hurtling down the makeshift ramp, and out into the wilderness of Archuleta County one day in early December.
The two headed out into the woods, where they would find a den to hibernate for the winter.
The bears were released in an aspen grove on a south-facing slope where there's no snow accumulation yet other than what snow fell yesterday. They'll have some time to find the right spot to den, and their natural instincts will serve them well. pic.twitter.com/kDfdh1xXjb— CPW SW Region (@CPW_SW) December 7, 2022
“The number one goal is that we never see these bears again,” said Luke Clancy, the CPW wildlife officer who captured them.
Each weighing about 105 pounds, the young female cubs had grown significantly since Clancy captured them last spring. They were just 15-pound bundles of fur when a landowner shot and killed their mother. The man inadvertently positioned himself between the two cubs, which had taken refuge in a tree, and the sow, which became aggressive. Unaware of the cubs’ presence, the landowner shot the protective mother bear and called CPW, who located the cubs in the tree.
Clancy set traps below the tree and was lucky enough to capture both bears.
He delivered the cubs to the Frisco Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, near Del Norte. They spent the summer and fall in a 1/3 acre pen with raspberry bushes and acorns, which allowed the cubs to get accustomed to natural food sources. Although the facility’s employees also provide food to the bears, the humans never interact with the bruins.
“We raised them as ‘hands-off’ as possible, providing an appropriate diet and habitat for them to grow and learn,” said Michael Sirochman, the facility’s manager, in an email to the Durango Herald. “In this case, I think we did an excellent job preserving their natural desire to avoid humans. They didn't seem to want anything to do with us.”
The facility’s employees cut back the bear’s food supply in the week before releasing them to signal that the cubs should prepare for hibernation.
Sometimes, CPW will place rehabilitated bears in artificial dens for the winter. Because of the prime condition of these cubs and the relatively mild winter conditions, officers opted for a “hard release.”
“These ones were fat enough, maybe even more than some of the ones that are getting put out in the artificial den site, just to make sure they've got that best chance … if they're gonna stumble around for five or six days getting used to their surroundings, they've got all these pounds packed on that they need to get through that winter until they do find that den,” Clancy said.
Sirochman said that the rehabilitation program varies depending on what each bear needs. He received a 9-pound cub last month that will eat all winter long rather than hibernating and be released in the spring.
Before the release, CPW attached GPS tracking tags to the cubs’ ears. The batteries in the tags will last less than a year, but they should provide CPW with data on when and how long the bears hibernate, as well as their locations in the days and weeks after they emerge.
CPW spokesman John Livingston said the cubs have been inseparable and he expects the two to den together, as they would if they were hibernating with their mother.
“Usually what we see when they come out of their dens is that they'll stick together for about upwards of almost a week or so and then they go their separate ways as bears kind of naturally do,” he said.
Sirochman said the rehab facility had a total of eight cubs in its custody this season from across the state. Some, but not all, are a result of human-bear interactions gone bad. Cubs often end up at the facility after their mother is killed by fast-moving traffic.
Clancy said the landowner who killed the mother of these cubs was within his rights to do so because the sow was threatening him. However, Clancy said that these interactions can end on a more positive note if people are continuously aware that sows may have cubs, even if they cannot be seen.
He said that bear spray is a powerful, nonlethal deterrent that he recommends to recreationalists in Durango, especially because it can be used if a bear is entangled with domestic pets and pose no lasting damage to the pet.
Despite the early hardship, Clancy said he is confident that these cubs will survive. They put on an impressive amount of weight, he said, and they are in extremely good health.
“They fattened up quite a bit … they’re little puff balls,” he said. “They're doing great.”