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Orphaned Aspen bears will awaken to new life

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart/The Aspen TimesA tranquilized yearling black bear is moved into a man-mad den on the Grand Mesa in western Colorado. It will finish hibernating there as part of its reitroduction to the wild.
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GRAND MESA, Colo. – Two yearling black bears from the Roaring Fork Valley are now slumbering in a cozy den, tucked in a grove of spruce and fir trees high on the Grand Mesa in western Colorado. In a few short weeks, they will nose out into their new surroundings, where they’ve been given another chance at life.

Relocating the bears was an all-day effort for Colorado Division of Wildlife personnel and volunteers with the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation, a wildlife rehabilitation center near Silt where the orphaned animals were deposited last summer after their mothers were euthanized.

This pair of males – one caught in Aspen and one in Basalt – were among 13 cubs brought to the center from the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond last year, when 19 problem bears in the Aspen area alone were killed and another 30 were relocated as far away as the Colorado/New Mexico border.

When wildlife officials trap and euthanize a sow that is entering homes and teaching her offspring the habits that may eventually get them killed, the wildlife foundation and its founder, Nanci Limbach, take on the motherless cubs with the hope that they can be successfully returned to the wild when they’re old enough.

On Thursday, while one crew hauled two yearlings to the Grand Mesa, two other bears from Aspen were headed to a man-made den outside of Steamboat Springs to sleep off what’s left of winter. When the days warm and the snowpack grows mushy, the bears will emerge to fend for themselves, foraging for food in the forest and not, wildlife officials hope, in the nearest town.

“These snow releases are so much better for them. They wake up in the spring and go back to the natural flow of the wild,” said Limbach, who helped pioneer the practice.

The foundation has had a hand in putting yearling bears, born the previous January, into dens to finish out their cycle of hibernation for 25 years. The success rate – defined by the number of bears that don’t get into documented trouble again – is 98 percent, according to the DOW.

“We’ve had good success,” agreed Will Spence, DOW district wildlife manager in South Rifle, who helped with Thursday’s relocation on the mesa. “They wake up and they’re kind of grounded here.”

Wildlife officers will check the den again in the spring to make sure the bears survived and departed. They always have in the past, according to Spence.

Yearlings that are placed in a den have a better chance of avoiding further trouble than do adult animals that are simply trapped and relocated, or even than cubs that are rehabilitated in captivity and then released in the woods, according to Randy Hampton, Division of Wildlife spokesman.

“Denning tends to be the most effective manner, but it’s not always the most practical manner, given all that is involved,” he said.

The Grand Mesa den, tucked beneath a fallen tree trunk and constructed of tree bows and snow, was lined with hay transported to the site along with the bears. The space, constructed in advance of the bears’ arrival, measured perhaps 3 feet by 3 feet, with 2 1/2 feet of head room.

“This is probably a lot nicer den than they’ll find for themselves,” Spence said.

On its own, a bear may simply curl up beneath a fallen tree and let the snow cover it up, he said.

Thursday’s operation meant fetching the groggy animals from a locale the foundation maintains at about 8,000 feet in Garfield County, where they began the hibernation cycle in an enclosure last November. Trucked to a Grand Mesa trailhead, the caged bears were loaded onto sleds and towed by snowmobile across the bottomless powder of the vast mesa to a spot so nondescript it required GPS coordinates to find it.

The 60-pound bears, fully awake after the trip, were tranquilized, tagged and moved into their new quarters. The opening was covered with branches and snow, and the animals were left to doze in the darkness.

Of the 13 bears placed in the foundation’s care last year, only four have been returned to the wild in this way, according to Limbach.

One other cub was euthanized early on because it was sick, while four others were deemed healthy enough to be released into the wild last November to hibernate in dens of their own making.

The remaining four young bears didn’t have sufficient body fat to hibernate this winter. They have remained at the center and will be released into the wild come May, Limbach said.

Bears are but one of the many species of animals brought to the center because they are injured or orphaned, but the bear trouble that often plagues Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley during the summer and fall months means local governments can expect a request for funding from the foundation, which relies solely on contributions to operate.

In Aspen, where wildlife officials say access to garbage and other human food sources is largely to blame for the problems that led to last year’s death toll, the inadvertent feeding of bears is compounding the problem exponentially, according to Limbach.

After a female black bear mates, her ability to become pregnant depends on her food intake, Limbach explained. Cubs are born in the den, in January, but a sow that doesn’t fatten up sufficiently by the time she’s ready to hibernate may not give birth to any cubs, or to just one.

“Hunger is a natural birth control,” she said.

Aspen’s well-fed sows may have as many as three cubs and, often, the young bears will learn from their mother to forage for food in town.

Unsecured garbage, Limbach said, is helping propagate the species – and the problems.

janet@aspentimes.com


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