Orphaned Estes Park bear cubs begin rehabilitation process in San Luis Valley
DENVER - Three orphaned black bear cubs taken from inside the Estes Park city limits are getting a new lease on life at Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Frisco Creek wildlife facility near Del Norte in the San Luis Valley.
The three cubs were orphaned last Thursday after their mother was euthanized for attempting to break into a home on Ponderosa Drive in Estes Park. It was the sow’s third reported residential break-in of the summer; she had also caused damage at a local business in her search of food.
That sow become known in the town as “Scarface” because of wounds sustained on her snout two years ago when she touched a power line. Due to her comfort being around people, she was deemed a threat to human health and safety.
“She had become habituated to people and had associated humans with food,” said Kristin Cannon, area wildlife manager for CPW. “She posed a safety risk to the public and we felt compelled to act to protect the community. We also hope that by removing the cubs from this situation, they will not repeat the behavior of their mother and will have a higher chance of survival over the long term.”
The rehabilitation center now plays an important role in the development of these cubs. The cubs are isolated from people to deter habituation. The Frisco Creek Center also prepares these cubs for winter hibernation.
Frisco Creek has been very successful in the rehabilitation of black bear cubs. In 2017, the center rehabilitated two orphaned cubs taken from Hermit Park Open Space just east of Estes Park.
“They came from near Estes Park and they were returned to the same area later that year,” said Michael Sirochman, Frisco Creek wildlife facility manager. “We are not taking them away. We are not putting them in a zoo. We are not killing them. We are successfully returning them to the wild, once they are ready to be self-sufficient.”
In a typical year, the facility receives 15-20 black bear cubs that they prepare to survive a winter’s hibernation on their own. Sirochman said the process of rehabilitating these three cubs begins with keeping them away from people.
“To prevent habituation, we are very strict about keeping people away from the bears. We also have the enclosures set up with visual barriers,” he said, so the cubs cannot see the working staff. “We will have two pens adjacent to each other and when the bears hear us, they generally will retreat to the farther pen, just to get away from the sound of humans. We are trying to preserve that instinct to avoid humans".
The next step is to continue to build on the bears' natural instincts and pack on the pounds before winter.
“A lot of this isn’t really taught, they just know to follow their nose to food and we try to provide the widest variety of natural forage that we can so that they have experience with those things,” Sirochman said. “When they smell them one day, they remember: ‘Ah ha, gooseberries are good and I’m going to go eat them.’ ”
The staff puts whole berry bushes or rose hips in their pens so the cubs actually pick the berries off and get poked by the thorns, making it a realistic experience. They are also fed fish provided by the Monte Vista Fish Hatchery.
However, the bulk of their diet is made up of a nutritionally complete commercial bear formula to make sure the cubs are getting all necessary nutrients to grow.
The minimum target weight that facility staff would allow a cub to be released for hibernation is 60 pounds for a female, 70 pounds for a male. Most cubs they release are somewhere in the 90- to 110-pound range.
“This time of year, since we are in hyperphagia, they are really keyed in on food,” Sirochman said. “They want to spend a lot of their day eating and this commercial feed is just so packed full of calories that they can really get a lot more nutrients in a short amount of time than they could in the wild. So they grow very quickly.”
How quickly? Sirochman said these cubs will probably put on 30-40 pounds by the end of September.
“Visually, they are very healthy cubs,” he said of this trio. “Some of the cubs we get have been orphaned for weeks without mom and they are starving. These went straight from mom to us so there was no lag time for them to get hungry.”
Just like the other set of orphaned cubs from Estes Park last summer, the success rate of the facility in getting cubs through their first hibernation on their own has been good.
In 2012, the facility released 20 cubs, equipped with ear-tag transmitters, into the wild during hibernation. The ear transmitters stay on typically for no longer than six months, but CPW collected enough data off of that to know that all 20 cubs survived the winter.
“It is not an occasional thing, it is something we do all the time,” Sirochman said. “We are good at it and are very successful. I very rarely find out about these cubs getting into trouble after release, which is somewhat telling. They don’t seem to be getting into trouble any more often than a wild bear would get into trouble.”
And that is the goal here with these three orphaned cubs. Do what can be done to get them to be self-sufficient without having to go into town to look for food.
When released, these cubs will have white ear-tags on them to signal they are rehabilitated cubs. This does not count as a first strike against them, so if they get into trouble in the future, they won’t be euthanized on that first offense unless they pose an imminent threat to human health and safety, such as by breaking into a home.
“They are going to hibernate all winter, they are going to turn their fat into all the energy and water they need,” Sirochman said. “One of the things a little bit of the research I’ve seen has shown, is that the longer they can go between the release and encountering humans for the first time, the greater the likelihood that they will respond like a wild bear that wants to avoid people.”
As for the city of Estes Park, Cannon stressed the importance of its residents being bear aware to help prevent future conflicts.
“It is imperative that the residents of Estes Park work to secure their garbage and houses to make town less appealing to the cubs and other bears,” she said.
CPW is an enterprise agency, relying primarily on license sales, state parks fees and registration fees to support its operations, including: 41 state parks and more than 350 wildlife areas covering approximately 900,000 acres, management of fishing and hunting, wildlife watching, camping, motorized and non-motorized trails, boating and outdoor education. CPW's work contributes approximately $6 billion in total economic impact annually throughout Colorado.