Two orphaned cubs will end winter in an artificial den before emerging in spring
Colorado Parks and Wildlife had a busy week.
Wildlife officials on Wednesday released two rehabilitated black bear yearlings west of Durango and a great horned owl near Wildcat Canyon.
The sibling marks the third and fourth CPW released this year, a sharp departure from the agency’s annual average, after a year of minimal human-bear conflict.
CPW district wildlife manager Brandon Dye first adopted the two bears as cubs last summer after their mother was killed and they were orphaned.
“We often get these bears and their mother was hit by a car,” said CPW spokesman John Livingston.
Dye transported the bears to CPW’s Frisco Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Del Norte, where rehabilitation center manager Michael Sirochman cared for the bears until they were released.
While in Del Norte, Sirochman raised the bears at a distance.
“The most important thing in caring for orphans is to keep their wild instincts alive and limit human interaction,” Livingston said.
The cubs were placed in an open area where they could climb aspen trees and learn many of the life skills needed to survive in the wild.
Sirochman focused on fattening the bears while they were in the facility so they can survive their winter hibernation. CPW aims for female cubs to weigh about 80 pounds and males about 90 pounds prior to a winter release.
Wild bear cubs can go into winter weighing as little as 40 or 50 pounds, Livingston said.
“If they have good fat reserves, they can get a really good head start in learning how to survive there,” he said.
Caretakers were careful to limit contact with the bears during feeding so that they do not associate humans with food and become dependent.
As winter set in, Sirochman reduced their food to mimic the bears’ natural cycle and induce hibernation. The bears slept in an artificial den in the rehabilitation center and continued their hibernation during their move.
On Wednesday morning, Sirochman loaded the artificial den and transported the two yearlings over Wolf Creek Pass to a team of conservationists from the Durango office, who then took the bears to their hideout deep in the San Juan Mountains west of Durango.
CPW transported the bears back to their final destination on the back of a snow cat.
The location is one that CPW has used before – the cub burned by the 416 Fire was placed in the same location.
“We’ve had a lot of success with that site, where we don’t see these bears coming back, either through hunter harvest or roadkill, and we haven’t seen them come back into cities and become problem bears that end up in the trash,” said Livingston. The place has a lot of really good food available in the spring, and it’s just a really good bear habitat.”
Once there, conservationists dug out a spot before laying down the hay. The team unloaded the artificial den and then insulated the box with hay and snow.
The bears will of course leave the den in the spring, and CPW will go back and collect the artificial den.
“These two had really good coats and they have everything they need to get through the winter,” Livingston said.
During their ordeal, the two siblings were kept together, a procedure CPW uses because it can increase the chances of a successful return.
“We absolutely love keeping bears and bear cubs together, especially when we release them back into the wild,” he said. “They tend to do a little better and have a better chance of survival when paired.”
Each yearling is fitted with a GPS ear tag paid for by a CPW investigator to allow the agency to track the bears. The ear tags do not share real-time data; instead, they’ll ping the location of each bear every few days, but it’s something CPW hasn’t done systematically for previous bear cub releases.
“We’re excited to see where they go after they come out of hibernation,” Livingston said.
The ear tags will be shipped until August or September, providing wildlife managers with crucial information about the rehabilitated bear releases.
“It really helps from the research side and from the conservationists’ perspective to see our success with restoring these bears to specific areas,” he said.
The two black bears are the third and fourth bears released this season from CPW’s Frisco Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, a positive development, Livingston said.
CPW normally releases about a dozen cubs each year during the fall and winter.
The Southern Ute Wildlife Resource Management Division, in partnership with CPW, reintroduced two orphaned bear cubs to the HD Mountains in December.
“We’ve had a really good bear year this year as there wasn’t a lot of conflict and the feed was very good in the high country for much of the year, which was great,” Livingston said.
On Wednesday, CPW officials also released a great horned owl found by the roadside west of Durango.
The bird was likely hit by a car and was unable to fly, but suffered no injuries, Livingston said.
CPW took the owl to the Durango Animal Hospital and then to the Frisco Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, where he was able to fly again within a week.
Sirochman conducted a hunting test, releasing live mice into what appears to be a miniature version of a hockey rink, to ensure the bird of prey could survive in the wild.
The bird passed the tests and CPW district wildlife manager Stephanie Taylor released the owl near Wildcat Canyon.
“With those birds, we always try to make sure we release them pretty close to where they were originally found,” Livingston said.