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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

October 1996

A bear-raising experience

It isn't easy bringing up youngsters that were born to be wild.

Dave Weitz

Sweet as she sounds in the nursery story, Mama Bear has a fierce reputation in nature as one tough lady when it comes to her cubs. The female bear's legendary protectiveness and mothering skills are the standards by which all maternal instincts, human included, are measured.

In 1995, two cubs – one separated from its mother by accident, the other by design – presented DNR conservation wardens and wildlife managers with a challenge: How to raise those cubs in a way that would do a Mama Bear proud. Meaning, the cubs would have to be healthy, fit and, most importantly, taught the behavior that would enable them to survive in the wild.

Scores of yearling bear cubs have been reintroduced successfully into the wild out West, but in Wisconsin, cub rearing is still in its infancy. The cub-sitters drew on their knowledge of the species and the help of volunteers to copy Mama's ministrations and get the cubs back where they belonged.

Learning about the wild side of life

Cub Number One, a young female, or sow, was stolen from her den when she was only a week or two old. The Taylor County man who took her claimed he'd forgotten the den location and insisted no harm had come to the mother. Conservation warden Nick Nice at Medford recovered the cub in April 1995; she'd been fed a mix of oatmeal and milk and was already a chunky two-month-old when she was brought to DNR's MacKenzie Environmental Education Center in Poynette.

Cub Number Two, a five-month-old male, or boar, was recovered near Cushing after his mother was killed by a passing car in June 1995. Conservation warden Brian Fellrath of Luck found the boar hiding up a tree near its dead mother.

"I had no idea how to get him out of there," Fellrath said. Two animal damage control officers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture baited a live trap with pastry and waited...and waited. The hungry cub ignored the trap, walked past the sweets and stayed near its mother's body. Eventually the men closed in on the cub, and when it scrambled up a small basswood tree, one man shinnied up the trunk and snared the boar with a catch pole. They loaded the cub into a dog kennel and it too was sent to the MacKenzie Center.

Both cubs became the charges of Dan Mautz, a wildlife technician based in Poynette. "The mission of the education center isn't to hold healthy wild animals captive, but to attempt to rehabilitate and reintroduce them to their natural home," Mautz said. He placed the two cubs in a 20 x 20-foot pen with an attached exercise area of the same size, equipped with logs, large rocks, and trees.

Although an estimated 35,000 young visitors from regional schools saw the cubs at MacKenzie, Mautz did his best to make sure the cubs didn't become too accustomed to people. He had other plans in mind for the orphaned bears: Mautz wanted to reintroduce the cubs into the wild.

He knew it would be chancy. Cubs can be returned to wild conditions if they are not exposed to people for long, but these bears were growing quickly in captivity. Mautz did some research and discovered that Montana officials had successfully reintroduced 48 of 50 yearling bear cubs to the wild. And he knew DNR Wildlife Manager Mike Gappa had reintroduced three black bear newborns the year before. Mautz gave Gappa a call.

Gappa remembered the conversation. "Yes," I said, "it can be done here in Wisconsin – or at least tried here in Wisconsin." The two wildlife managers decided to tackle the task from different ends: Mautz would work on the cubs' diet and conditioning, Gappa would scout out a new home.

In essence, Mautz had to teach the bears how to be bears. The rapidly growing cubs needed to learn the habits and behaviors their mothers would have taught them -- and fast. To help the cubs learn to recognize and forage for wild foods after emerging from their winter dens, Mautz fed them the foods they would find in the forest. He collected wild grapes, acorns, raspberries, blackberries and grasses for the cubs to eat. Even with the help of food-gathering volunteers, Mautz had a hard time keeping pace with the cubs' healthy appetites.

As the winter months neared, Mautz had to encourage the cubs to begin the seasonal shift into denning behavior. He slowly reduced their food supply, causing their metabolism to slow down for the winter rest. These cubs were well-prepared for hibernation. Each had put on a solid fat layer; in fact, they were twice as fat as they would have been had they spent their first year in the wild. The extra size and weight gave them a bit of added insurance for surviving the coming winter and spring.

In October, the bears were introduced to wooden crates built into cave-like dens. The fat, sleepy cubs adapted well to the "transition dens" lined with dry grass, leaves and pine branches that served as their homes until wild dens could be found. As food was withdrawn, the cubs settled in for a long winter's nap.

A home for the orphans

Meanwhile, Gappa was searching for the ideal den site. He wanted a proven den, one that had been used by bears in the past but was isolated enough so the cubs wouldn't be bothered by people.

He found what he needed in the Eau Claire County Forest: A deep den where a sow had raised three cubs the year before. Miles from traveled routes, it would provide an out-of-the-way spot for the yearlings. Some of the materials from their captive dens would be transferred to the natural den, to help the bears adjust to the new surroundings.

In early December, the hibernating bears were tranquilized, closed up in their crates, transported to the new den sites, fitted with ear-tags and radio-collars, and placed in their new dens. It sounds relatively easy on paper, but out in the field, the managers literally had their hands full. Each cub now weighed between 85-110 pounds. Mautz and Gappa had to hoist the bears out of the crates, load each one onto a plastic sled, and haul them carefully to the new den site. The weather on moving day proved most foul – the worst ice storm of the winter. It was almost, well, unbearable.

Still, the release worked out fine. Transferring some of the bedding material from the crates into the den made the bears feel at home, and they stayed in hibernation after the tranquilizing drugs wore off.

Out and about

In early spring, the bears emerged from their den in the Eau Claire County Forest and Gappa kept tabs on them via the radio collars. Both bears were sighted by wildlife biologists and volunteers assisting in the project. All was going well until March. Radio-tracking showed the bears had stopped moving; Gappa took it as a signal that they might be dead. After a long search, he discovered both bears had chewed off their radio collars and were now roaming unfettered by the high-tech gear. Although they could no longer be followed day-to-day, the bears could still be identified by their ear tags.

Early this June, the young sow bear made an appearance in the community of Fairchild, begging food from people and attempting to enter a vehicle. On the night of June 17, the same bear pestered a homeowner in the Town of Wilson and refused to leave. The bear had to be tranquilized and euthanized. It just couldn't shake its early imprinting on people and it serves as a sad reminder of why wild animals should not be removed from their natural settings.

The young boar has not been sighted, and presumably is still roaming the Eau Claire County Forest.

The bear-raising experience hasn't discouraged Mautz or Gappa. Mautz is raising two more orphaned bear cubs this fall and is trying new techniques to isolate the bears and give them an even wilder experience. In time, the two wildlife managers hope to perfect the techniques so others will have better luck returning black bears to the wild after they've had contact with people.

Bears get more respect

Black bear are a big game animal in Wisconsin today, respected and studied, but that wasn't always the case.

Until 1956 there was no closed season on black bear and one only needed a small game license to hunt them. Then mandatory registration of bear kills provided accurate information about their numbers, and in 1974, state law gave the black bear big game status, same as the white-tailed deer.

Today, an estimated 14,000 bear inhabit Wisconsin. It's a big change from 1985, when concern for the state's dwindling bear population warranted a closed season. That year the state Legislature mandated that the Department of Natural Resources control the bear harvest.

Interest in bear hunting is increasing, according to Mike Gappa, wildlife manager in Eau Claire. In 1986, when the season reopened, only 503 bear were harvested. Now, a license is needed to pursue bear and an additional permit is required to harvest one. In 1995, more than 30,000 people applied for 2,710 harvest permits.

Hunting remains an effective management tool to keep the population at goal levels. "If we didn't have a means to control the bear population, in four years we would be at 35,000 bear," Gappa says. The increase would slow the reproduction rate, raise cub mortality due to conflict with other bears, and increase bear cannibalization (a result of population stress for many species).

A larger bear population would likely result in more bear damage and nuisance complaints. The cooperative wildlife damage control program includes by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, counties and the United States Department of Agriculture Animal Damage Control (APHIS). In 1995, APHIS received 1,439 complaints about black bear. After investigations, 607 bears were live-trapped and relocated. There were 872 nuisance complaints where the bears eventually left an area on their own.

Most of Gappa's work takes place in Bear Management Zone C, a 5,989-square mile area containing about 950 bears in range densely settled by people. He says that today, in Zone C, it's not food or cover that limits bear; rather, it's the human attitude about having bears in the area. "Bears have adapted remarkably well to the presence of people, while people in some cases have not adapted well to bears," Gappa said. "I believe that black bears and people can co-exist. The bears are showing us how that can be done through their actions. I think we owe them the opportunity."

Gappa talks with civic organizations, school groups and landowners to help dispel the "Big Bad Bear" stereotype. He has evidence, too, that more people welcome bears as neighbors these days: When he had to relocate three newborn bear cubs to dens with surrogate mothers, the response from landowners willing to share their knowledge of where bears denned was overwhelming. Most told Gappa they'd never mentioned "their" bear den before because they wanted to protect their black bear neighbors.

Old attitudes are changing, and both people and bears are benefitting.

Three bears who got a break

Mike Gappa, Eau Claire Area Wildlife Manager

Two wildlife technicians on their way from Grantsburg to Spooner stepped out of last December's cold and into the DNR's Western District Headquarters to chat with me: A sow bear had been killed by land-clearing equipment and three newborn bear cubs, their eyes still not open, were discovered unhurt.

Ordinarily, the cubs would be taken to the MacKenzie Environmental Education Center at Poynette, where trained technicians would care for them until the cubs could be placed in zoos or private game farms.

Perhaps there was another way – nature's way. But, to return the cubs to their natural environment, I'd need help fast. We had to find someone willing to take on the task of providing round-the-clock bottle feedings. We'd also have to find sows with cubs approximately the same age that could handle a quick addition to the family.

We got lucky and found both. John and June Owen of rural Fall Creek have operated White Pine Rehabilitation Center for several years to care for injured animals. When I asked if they could care for three tiny bears, they agreed at once.

Next, we turned to WEAU-TV reporter Dave Carlson for help in finding homes for the cubs. Carlson's Sunday night television program about Wisconsin's resources covers much of central and western Wisconsin – the bear range where there might be a sow with cubs. Carlson was eager to help, too. He aired a story about the three cubs that night, and shortly thereafter my phone started ringing. The story was picked up by the Associated Press, spread nationally, and soon people wanting to save the orphaned cubs called in from as far away as Montana.

During the next two weeks more than 40 Wisconsin residents, from Kenosha, Racine, Janesville, Spooner, Winter, Park Falls, Superior and a multitude of rural areas contacted me. They all knew of bears denning on their property, but had kept the locations secret to protect the animals.

I quietly checked out potential den locations while John and June Owen cared for the rapidly growing cubs. Some of the den sites looked promising but I couldn't find any with sows and cubs. We really needed dens with a sow and one, or at most two, cubs, to ensure a smooth "adoption."

After a two-week search, we found some good sites. On February 8, accompanied by John and June Owen, I carried the cubs to their new homes. The male cub was placed in a den in Chippewa County with a large sow who had two cubs. The two female cubs were placed in a den with a sow in Price County who also had two cubs.

At the time I truly felt the cubs were going to fit right in, and that's what later happened. Periodic checks later on verified that the new cubs had been fully accepted as litter mates.

Dave Weitz is DNR's public information officer based in Eau Claire.