Orphaned bear cubs returned to the wild in artifical den

DENVER — Orphan bear triplets, banished from Colorado Springs’ swank Broadmoor neighborhood for eating human food, have spent seven months in rehabilitation pens, savoring the wildlife equivalent of room service at a fancy hotel: benevolent caretakers twice a day delivering buckets of leafy greens, fruit and sometimes salmon.

But last weekend those orphans woke up in the wild, and are expected to hibernate quietly in the darkness of an artificial den on the wind-whipped north side of 14,110-foot Pikes Peak.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife crews hauled the cubs away from both Broadmoor and rehab in a tubular silver trailer-cage, drugged, their eyes barely open and tongues sliding out between their omnivorous teeth. CPW biologists knew well that their survival is not guaranteed. It will depend on whether the yearling cubs — hazed to be wary of humans — quickly develop foraging skills their euthanized mother can’t teach. It also will depend on snow or rain arriving before spring so that this super-dry forest may produce berries and acorns.

“It is likely these animals will struggle to survive,” CPW area manager Frank McGee said. “Yearlings and cubs are the ones hardest hit when there’s drought.”

The bear orphans transplanted to open land away from houses — the triplets here, four other orphan bears on the south side of Pikes Peak — are victims of Colorado’s intensifying and seemingly inevitable squeeze on wildlife. As McGee put it, “the reality is people are here and they aren’t going anywhere.”

Cramming in more human residents, and the accelerating development to sustain them, and the impact of thousands of outdoor-oriented tourists increasingly encroaches on bear habitat.

CPW officers who are compelled by homeowner complaints and other influences to euthanize hundreds of bears who have adapted to changes by tapping human garbage say that, while designating more protected habitat would be nice, the best thing to do given current reality is to simply be decent.

They chopped up fallen pine trees, stacked logs around hay bales and covered this construction with soft, green-needled branches. Across the state, CPW officials have reported success resettling dozens of orphan cubs in similar artificial structures.

Last Friday at dawn, the triplets awoke at Wet Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation near Wetmore, where human contact was kept to a minimum other than feeding and feces removal, feeling the sting of tranquilizer darts. As they drifted out of consciousness, CPW biologists lifted them into the cage and drove them, stopping periodically to check their heartbeats, to regional headquarters offices in Colorado Springs where curious humans peered in as they snored. Then the biologists hauled the bears up a mountain pass, beyond a McDonald’s and many stores and foothills homes, to a 3,000-acre city-owned parcel abutting national forest near Pikes Peak.

They hoisted the bears out of the rolling cage onto plastic sleds. They put a muzzle on the one male, weighing about 140 pounds, as part of their protocol. The females weighed about 110 pounds.

They tugged the sleds over dry grass, sticks and crumbling pinkish rock down into the ravine. They rolled the cubs off the sleds in front of a 3-foot-wide opening to the den. They scooted the triplets inside, where hay serves as bedding.

“Definitely a very substantial den,” CPW officer Tim Kroening said before crawling into the den to position the ears close together. “We want to keep them warm, give them a good start. We want bears to be out in the wild.”

The CPW team worked quickly. Before leaving, they injected each cub with a drug to reverse the effects of the tranquilizer. The idea was that these yearlings would wake up, as if from a bad dream, and put their human encounters behind them.

“They are victims. They are innocent. They might have seen some bad behavior. But they are the most likely to be able to change their behavior,” CPW biologist Adam Gerstenberger said as he tugged a sled back up out of the ravine.

“They are going to have a drive to forage. Besides that, the mother is important in teaching survival skills. But when that mother, like this one, was teaching them really bad habits…” Gerstenberger said. “This is another chance for the cubs to survive.”