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Wildlife advocates call on government to rehabilitate and release orphaned grizzly bear cubs from zoo

“These three cubs are not being saved by being in a zoo. This is not a happy ending for wild animals. This is condemning these bears to a life in captivity where they do not belong," said bear specialist Reno Sommerhalder
Three orphaned grizzly bear cubs at the Calgary Zoo. CALGARY ZOO FACEBOOK PHOTO

BOW VALLEY – Scientists and wildlife advocates are urging the Alberta government to rehabilitate and release three caged orphaned grizzly bear cubs back into the wild.

The mother of the grizzly cubs was shot and killed by hunters in early May in the Crowsnest Pass area in what investigators called an act of self defence. The Calgary Zoo has been caring for the three-to four-month-old cubs until another home for them is found elsewhere in North America.

Banff’s Reno Sommerhalder, a longtime bear specialist with experience researching and working with bears in Canada, Alaska and Russia, said this means there are four animals lost from Alberta’s already threatened grizzly bear population.

“These three cubs are not being saved by being in a zoo. This is not a happy ending for wild animals. This is condemning these bears to a life in captivity where they do not belong,” said Sommerhalder.

“It’s certainly no easy position to decide what’s better for these bears – are they better off in zoo or should we we kill them – because that’s playing God to a large degree, but obviously the best option for animals like this, especially because we know today that we have a limitation of grizzly bears, is to rehabilitate them.”

A group of 73 scientists, wildlife conservationists and animals activities, which also include locals John Marriott and Kevin Van Tighem, signed a letter to Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon, asking the government to consider changes to policy.

The signatories say the the age and health of the young grizzly bear cubs make them ideal candidates for rehabilitation, pointing to an existing program at the Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter in Smithers, B.C..

The group also urges the Alberta government to consider licensing one or more Alberta bear rehabilitation facilities for grizzly bear rehabilitation, such as the Cochrane Ecological Institute.

Once successfully reared and capable of surviving in the wild on their own, the cubs would be released back into an appropriate area with as little human development as possible.

Since B.C.’s Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter opened in 2007, Sommerhalder said 25 grizzly cubs have been raised and released without serious incident. However, it is not known whether these bears went on to breed or be bred.

“In scientific circles a rehabilitated and released bear is deemed a success once it has contributed genetically to the local population, which I partially agree should certainly be the goal,” said Sommerhalder.

“But I think that the majority of bear specialists would agree that a bear that’s released back into the wild without creating trouble with people, without getting into trouble in regards to breaking into chicken coops or whatever, that even if that animal dies after a year or two in the wilderness, it is still within the ecosystem and it feeds the rest of the system,” he added.

“That seem to me a much better ending for an animal than if it’s behind a cage in a zoo.”

Sommerhalder said grizzly bears belong in the wild where they have evolved to adapt to their very complex niche in the ecosystem, adding this complexity can never be recreated in captivity. 

“These animals are not made for zoos,” he said.

“No matter how well you do habitat enrichment and enhancement within an enclosure, or no matter how well you manage a zoo, you can not replicate what a grizzly bear needs in the wild.” 

Currently, the Alberta government allows rehabilitation of black bear cubs, but Sommerhalder said the province needs to take another look at its policy banning rehabilitation and release of grizzly bears. 

“The Alberta government should reconsider its policy on grizzly rehabilitation and regard it as a means to augment their grizzly bear recovery program,” he said.

Officials with Alberta Parks and Environment says the department’s specialists have looked at the research – including British Columbia’s practices – and there is inconclusive evidence about success with grizzly rehabilitation or the safety risks associated with it.

John Muir, AEP’s director of communications, said grizzly bears are different than black bears because they often stay longer with their mothers, meaning they take longer to learn the ropes in terms of foraging and hunting. 

“This means they need to be in rehabilitation longer than black bears in order to survive in the wild,” he said.

“This causes safety concerns because the longer a bear is in rehabilitation, the higher the risk of habituation and aggression when the bear is released.”

Muir said the grizzly bear cub rearing in B.C. is a pilot project and its permitted facility has limited space – and priority space is for B.C. wildlife. 

“Animals from outside B.C. are avoided, as they can introduce new parasites and infectious diseases,” he said..

 “Currently, there is little supporting evidence that B.C.’s pilot rearing project for orphaned grizzly bears has resulted in survival past the first denning period,” he added.

“To our knowledge, no other jurisdiction in North America allows captive rearing and release of grizzly bears.”

But Sommerhalder said he has seen success firsthand.

He said he has worked with projects in the Russian far east, in which 21 orphaned bear cubs – both Asiatic black bears and Syrian brown bears – were released into the wild.

“All of these bears were released without any incidents,” he said

“But I have to say they were released where there were hardly any human beings, so there was no chance for these bears to get into trouble.” 

Alberta has had a draft grizzly bear recovery strategy since 2016 after the last one expired in 2013. There are renewed calls to update the plan based on up-to-date science to improve habitat security and reduce human-caused bear deaths.

“Our group believes that rehabilitating these three orphaned cubs is a critical first step in revamping Alberta’s commitment to grizzly bear conservation and recovery,” said Canmore wildlife photographer John Marriott.

“While some grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 U.S. states have increased dramatically, Alberta’s population has seen no significant increase since the species was designated as threatened in 2010.”

The recent hunting incident in southern Alberta that left these three grizzly bear cubs orphaned is a stark reminder how quickly four healthy grizzly bears can tragically disappear from the landscape. 

“Humans killed the mother of these cubs, therefore, we have the responsibility to do whatever we can to give the surviving cubs a chance at life in the wild,” said Sommerhalder.

“With grizzly bears threatened in Alberta, every single grizzly bear counts.”

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