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Cochrane Ecological Institute concerned with Alberta Parks' plan for release of orphaned black bear

“You want the animals you release to stay there and not get into trouble with humans again. It is possible to find places like that," Smeeton said. “We really need to think about these possibilities because we want the best for the animals."

COCHRANE— After nursing an orphaned black bear since the spring, a local wildlife rehab centre is frustrated with Alberta Parks' decisions regarding the release of the cub into the wild.

Cochrane Ecological Institute president Clio Smeeton said it has been frustrating working with Alberta Parks to find a safe place to release orphan bear cub Siksi’namm into the wild. The cub has been under the care of the Institute since it was abandoned in a box in the charity’s parking lot in the spring.

The provincial government took the bear on Tuesday (Oct. 20), Smeeton said, and she is concerned about where the bear cub has been released. She added the government refused to disclose to the Institute where the bear was relocated.

In the past the Institute worked with Fish and Wildlife in the release of bears to ensure the animal was moved into where there would be no concern for hunting or predatory encounters— This is now difficult because animal populations are not being monitored prior to the release of a bear.

When a wild animal is released the goal is for them to stay where they are put because they are in an optimum habitat with minimum human disturbance, Smeeton said, and she is concerned one of the proposed new homes for Siksi’namm may be in the Ghost Public Lands Zone— Which does not meet these criteria.

“The proposed release site is not ‘remote,’ it is not ‘good habitat,’” Smeeton said. “If you’re looking for maximum disturbance that is the optimum place.”

Smeeton said there have been concerns the bear could be released into the Ghost Lake area.

The Ghost Lake area has multiple land uses including logging, hunting, camping and recreational vehicle access.

On Oct. 3 The Cochrane Eagle reported concerns about random camping, human waste, target shooting and illegal campfires in Alberta’s Foothills— Including in the Ghost wilderness area which covers about 947 square kilometres of land.

“That’s not good for bears— That’s just going to bring them down to where humans are,” Smeeton said. “It’s the wrong place, let’s find the right place.”

Smeeton added the Institute is willing to work with the government to research the best locations for release to ensure Siksi’namm will have the greatest possible opportunity to thrive.

“They download the responsibility on to us, they download the costs on to us so why don’t they say to us, ‘Do what you’ve always done up until 2018, find the release sites then come to us,’” Smeeton said, explaining that more collaboration is needed when finding a release site for orphaned bears.

Together they can create a “win-win” situation, Smeeton said, where bears find a safe place to live and the government shows they care about the success of wildlife in the province.

The Cochrane Ecological Institute has been working with orphaned bears since 1985 and in the past would mutually work with Fish and Wildlife to find a safe space to release bears.

“If you think about if you let cubs go in a hibernating box, which was what we were using from 1993 on, the cubs would go into the box in the middle of November. Then the box with the hibernating bear in it could be moved to the previously researched release site anytime from late December to mid-March,” Smeeton said. “During that time the old predatory bears that would eat an eight-month-old cub if it's let go this time of year they’re hibernating … and it’s after the hunting season.”

Bears can wake up in a new world but stay where they are put because they were released in a familiar “cave,” she said.

One of the most important aspects of releasing young animals into the wild is ensuring it is done at the time they would normally separate from the parental group, Smeeton added. A black bear will separate depending on the sex and availability of food around the age of two or three years old.

“You want the animals you release to stay there and not get into trouble with humans again. It is possible to find places like that," Smeeton said. “We really need to think about these possibilities because we want the best for the animals."

Director, communications, environment and parks John Muir provided a statment to The Cochrane Eagle regarding the release of Siksi’namm.

"Alberta’s black bear rehabilitation protocol recommends that bears be released into the same area where they were found. Since we do not know where this bear came from, the department had to assess other locations that will meet the needs of the bear. For bear releases, our top priority is always the well-being of the animal. We look for areas with good habitat and remote settings away from people," he said. "The Ghost Recreation Land Zone was initially chosen because it meets both of those requirements. We heard Albertans’ concerns about the Ghost Recreation Land Zone and found an alternate release site that will also be suitable for the bear.  We want to assure Albertans that the bear will be in a remote setting as far away from people as possible.  Bear release sites are not made publicly available in order to give the bear the best possible chance of survival and prevent potential contact with humans. The bear will be collared so that the department can keep track of how its doing in the wild."

Chelsea Kemp

About the Author: Chelsea Kemp

Chelsea Kemp joined the Cochrane Eagle in 2020 as editor, bringing with her experience as a reporter and photojournalist. She writes about politics, health care, arts and entertainment and Indigenous stories.
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