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Scientists call on Alberta government to lift ban on rehabilitating orphaned grizzly bear cubs

“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."

BOW VALLEY – Current Alberta government policy for orphaned grizzly bears cubs has only two options – cage them in a zoo or kill them.

In early May, three orphaned cubs were sent to the Calgary Zoo when their mother was killed by hunters in the Crowsnest Pass. The zoo is caring for the three-to four-month-old cubs until another home for them is found elsewhere in North America.

The outcome has prompted a call from approximately 100 scientists and wildlife advocates for the provincial government to lift the ban on the rehabilitation and release of orphaned grizzly bear cubs back into the wild.

Banff’s Reno Sommerhalder, a longtime bear specialist with experience researching and working with bears in Canada, Alaska and Russia, said the death of the mother grizzly and sending the three cubs to the zoo means four animals are lost from Alberta’s 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 a zoo or should we kill them –  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.”

In 2011, the Alberta government forbade the rescue, rearing  and release of orphaned bear cubs, both black and grizzly. It lifted the ban for rehabbing black bears, with certain conditions, in 2018. The ban was not lifted for grizzly bears.

Now, a group of 96 scientists, wildlife conservationists and animals activists have signed a letter to Jason Nixon, the minister for Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP), asking the government to consider changes to the policy.

It is part of a renewed call for an updated grizzly bear recovery strategy based on up-to-date science to improve habitat security and reduce human-caused bear deaths. The last recovery plan expired in 2013 and a draft in 2016 was never adopted.

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

The signatories to the letter say 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 Society 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, which has extensive experience rehabbing black bears.

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.

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.” 

Officials with AEP say 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, a spokesperson for AEP, 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. 

“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 said.

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

The B.C. government signed an agreement with the Northern Lights Wildlife Society (NLWS) and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to consider orphaned grizzly bear cubs for a pilot rehabilitation program in 2007.

Angelika Langen and husband Peter have released 25 grizzly bears into the wild, and Angelika said that with the exception of a male bear that got into unsecured chicken coops and garbage in northern B.C., there have been no reported problems.

That said, she said they lose track of the bears after one year when the collars typically stop working.

“The [Alberta] government say there’s no proof that it works, but I have to counter with there’s no proof that it doesn’t work either,” said Angelika, noting NLWS has been rehabilitating black bears for release back into the wild about 30 years.

As part of the agreement with the B.C. government, the cubs are kept for up to 18 months at NLWS, as data proved that yearling cubs in good condition have a very good survival chance despite the fact that they usually stay with their mother for at least two years. 

“We’ve found that they do very well out there in the first year, so there’s no reason to keep them longer – and we’re reducing their human contact that way,” said Angelika.

The cubs are monitored after the release to answer questions in regards to their survival rate, possible human-bear conflict situations and their ability to fit into the wild population. 

“We use state of the art GPS/VHF collars that allow us to monitor the released cubs via our computer in almost real time,” said Angelika.

Recently, the NLWS partnered with B.C.’s Grizzly Bear Foundation to bring more science into the picture. Beginning this spring under a contract with GBF wildlife biologist Lana Ciarniello, NLWS will launch a multi-year study of grizzlies rehabilitated at the facility, and then once released will observe their behaviour and success in the wild.

Angelika said Ciarniello, who works with a IUCN bear specialist group, will be following the progress of two one-and-a-half-year-old male grizzly bears that will be released in June.

“They are taking over after we’re done with them for the first year and then re-collar them and follow them and study to see how they use the habit and all these kinds of things,” she said.  “There will be an official scientific paper on this eventually.”

With 220 acres of land near Smithers, NLWS has room to increase its enclosures, if necessary, and is in a position to take the three orphaned grizzly bears in the Calgary Zoo if needed. 

Angelika said the facility is ready and willing to partner with other jurisdictions whenever and wherever possible, but said there needs to be a blueprint for moving forward.

“One of the things that the B.C. government is telling me is they don’t want to fill up our facility with bears from elsewhere, and then we don’t have room for B.C. bears, which I think is reasonable,” she said.

“I feel you would need a separate facility for those bears so that there’s still room for B.C. bears – and that’s possible because we have enough land.”

Angelika said she hopes Alberta allows for grizzly bear rehabilitation as a longer term solution.

“Alberta then has to make a commitment that they allow Alberta to build a facility and train with us so that they can take things over in five years or six years, so not everything is going to be put on us all the time,” she said.

“It is possible to do that for the interim, to be helping out, but it is not possible to do that over the long run for the next 20 or 30 years. We would like to give people the knowledge that we already have.”

Hoping that Alberta will change its policy, the Cochrane Ecological Institute is building enclosures specifically designed to international standards for rearing orphaned grizzly bear cubs, with the intention of successfully returning them to the wild.

“This is a choice that, due to current policy decisions, the government does not have at present,” said Clio Smeeton, the facility’s owner.

The Alberta government continues to tell the Cochrane Ecological Institute there is no plan to change direction regarding grizzly bear cubs. The current policy states if orphaned grizzly bear cubs are reported they will: a) try to find a zoo to take them. If a zoo accepts the cubs, ownership moves from the province of Alberta to the owner of the zoo. The zoo can then do whatever it wants with the cubs – trade, sell or exhibit – or b) kill the cubs.

But Smeeton said building the enclosure presents the Alberta government with an ethical choice – either to kill orphaned cubs of a threatened species or put them in zoos – or give them a second chance at life.

“Our proposal offers another choice: return to the wild and freedom,” she said.

“We will succeed in constructing the enclosure up to international standards ... the next  thing will be to get the province to approve it.”

Sommerhalder points to the largest data set of rehabilitated brown bears, noting that between 1995 and 2015, Valentin Pazhetnov in Russia released 199 orphaned brown bear cubs back into the wild.

He said all of those bears were released were between eight and 10 months of age, with  91 per cent – or 181 – bears successful released based on information gleaned from monitoring for one year. The other 18 bears were recaptured as they were found in proximity to human settlements. 

“These bears were released a second time one year later. Only four of those cubs were not successfully reintegrated and had to be removed,” said Sommerhalder.

“That is a 98 per cent success rate in a 20-year period. One year post release monitoring does not provide sufficient data to show successful reintegration, but it does show that this can be done safely for people, which is the main concern of AEP.”

International bear rehabilitation expert John Beecham was contracted by the Alberta government to produce the province’s black bear rehabilitation protocols before they licensed two black bear rehabilitation facilities in the province.

“It is known that orphaned grizzly bear cubs released as yearlings in North America are capable of surviving in the wild,” he said in a press release as one of the 96 signatories on the letter to Nixon.

Beecham said the data is also clear that the rehabilitation process and the length of time in a rehabilitation facility do not result in higher levels of aggression in bears. 

“I am aware of no published cases where orphaned bears, released back to the wild, have become aggressive towards their caretakers during rehabilitation or towards the public after they were released,” he said.

“There are times when released cubs with bold personalities have approached the public in search of food, but no records of aggressive behaviour.”

The group of signatories on the letter to Nixon believes that rehabilitating these three orphaned cubs currently at the Calgary Zoo is a critical first step in revamping Alberta’s commitment to grizzly bear conservation and recovery.

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. 

There is no information being released to the public on the circumstances surrounding the death of the mamma bear, other than provincial investigators deemed she was shot by hunters in self defence.

“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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