The residents of Swiss Village, a small community between Carbondale and Redstone, have their fair share of run-ins with bears each year. In early August, a bear and her two cubs set up house there to the delight of many residents, but not all.
Around dinnertime on Aug. 22, three shotgun blasts shattered the normally peaceful neighborhood. Resident Brian Heeney had shot the bear out of her tree, and the sow lay dead on the ground as her two young charges looked on from above. The cubs descended the tree and crawled all over their mother’s dead carcass, trying to nurse and bawling loudly enough to draw the attention of neighbors.
Officials from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) arrived and immediately tranquilized the cubs, and a firestorm of controversy lit up the valley. Heeney said the bear was a danger to himself and his dogs, but some were outraged and questioned why he went into the woods with a shotgun to confront the bear that night. The once-friendly neighborhood became the center of an acrimonious divide, with one primary concern at the core of the debate: What would happen to the orphan cubs?
Wildlife officers told residents that night the cubs would be fattened up and released, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. In the old days, the cubs would have been euthanized, but not anymore. As neighbors returned to their homes and prepared to turn in for the night, a long and difficult process to save the cubs was just getting started on the other side of the mountain.
Things were just settling down for the night at the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation in Silt when the call came. Nanci Limbach, founder and executive director, owns the property that houses the main facility with her husband Paul, and they live on-site.
Founded in 1984, they get 200 to 300 rehab animals of all species each year and have a 98 percent success rate based on CPW records — determined by the animals’ rehabilitation and release back into the wild.
To date, Limbach has rehabbed around 7,000 animals. The foundation also runs a sanctuary for animals that cannot be returned to the wild, permanently housing foxes, bobcats and even a mountain lion, but rehab is her main function.
The orphaned cubs from Redstone were turned over to the foundation to eventually be released back into the wild. A new family of four was created by placing them in a single cage with another pair of cubs. They were orphaned after a vehicle hit their mother on Highway 82 in front of the Roaring Fork Club. Both pairs began to adjust to life without their mothers.
To return the bears into the wild, they cannot acclimate to humans. The staff doesn’t do anything to lead the animals to believe there’s a positive benefit to interacting with humans, but infants of any species still need to be loved and nurtured.
“There’s a fine line, but they can get that from siblings, which is why there’s always two together even if they’re not siblings,” Limbach said. “This way they have someone to fight with, scream at, cuddle with, whatever they want to do, and they do it all. They’ll sit in bathtubs … and one will splash the other. Then the other, like a little kid, will splash back, and pretty soon they’re wrestling and having a great time.”
Staying hands-off can be tough with a few-weeks-old bear cub; rescue staff even avoid talking to the animals. Researchers have studied bears’ reactions to sounds by applying heart monitors, and the human voice caused more stress than lawnmowers, music and other kinds of machines.
“I guess you have to override that whole instinct,” Limbach said. “We had one 12-pounder that sat outside our office in an isolation pen, and we’d look at it and go, ‘Don’t you just want to grab it and hug the dang thing?’ It is hard, we’d love to [physically comfort them]. But on the other hand, they have really long claws and they know how to use them.”
In addition to all the other species at the facility, the group averages six bears per year and is currently rehabbing 10 cubs, along with more than 100 other animals. They’ve had as many as 25 bears in a single season, and while they rehab all species of wildlife, the bears present a unique set of challenges. Their size requires enormous amounts of food, creating Limbach’s least favorite part of bear rehab.
“The poop,” Limbach said. “There is so much of it. For the amount of food they eat, each bear’s doing 5 to 10 pounds of dog food each day during the fattening period, but also they’re eating an equal amount of fruits and veggies. Pound for pound … what you stick in, the only thing they take out of it is the nutrients and the sugars, and everything else comes right back out the other end.”
As one of the first facilities in the U.S. to begin bear cub rehab more than 20 years ago, it was trial by fire for the foundation. There were no commercial foods available for black bears, so a friend gave Limbach a polar bear diet for the inaugural foster parents. Within six months she realized the cubs were getting too big because the diet was too high in fat for a black bear.
Hibernation was another learning curve. As one of the only animals that hibernates, there were no existing protocols for how to facilitate hibernation for captive bears. With the help of CPW biologist John Broderick, they came up with an idea to ensure safe winter hibernation during rehab that mimics the real thing with a two-phase process she calls “winter release.”
The foundation purchased a 155-acre parcel in 1991 in the high backcountry of Garfield County, far from the main facility, and began to implement the experiment. (Limbach doesn’t reveal the location to protect the sleeping bears.) At 8,000 feet, the man-made dens are at the perfect elevation for hibernation, and a caretaker keeps an eye on the cubs. Last Tuesday, this reporter accompanied staff and volunteers as they relocated the four orphan bear cubs from the main facility to the private hibernation location for the first phase of winter release.
The cubs, who have spent their rehab time socializing and fattening up for winter, were transferred from their large habitat to two small traveling crates, a pair in each crate. A very regimented process was used for the transfer to ensure no escapes. Once two bears were in a crate, a forklift moved the 300-plus pound box to the transport truck.
On the truck, the volunteers carefully secured the crates, mindful of the difficult trip to the secret location, and enormous amounts of produce were added to the load. When transporting bears to the hibernation spot, a caravan with multiple trucks and a crew of six is always present in case a vehicle breaks down or gets stuck.
The caravan arrived at the location after almost an hour on bumpy, backcountry dirt roads. They made final preparations on the cage, checking and re-checking its structural integrity, and adding a little fun for the cubs by hanging a tire swing in the middle of the three-room enclosure.
The process of releasing the cubs into their new environment is just as precise and regimented as loading. Each team member has a role, and each role is required to ensure the safe transition. Upon release, the first two cubs went wild, practically flying from one end of the enclosure to another at light speed. They seemed annoyed by the long journey and unsure of their new surroundings.
The second pair of cubs was released with the same caution, and then bushels and bushels of produce were added to continue the pre-hibernation fattening process. They’ll get this volume of food until hibernation begins. The cage is equipped with two separate wooden boxes for hibernation, and when the time comes, the four bears will choose one box and all curl up together for the winter, leaving one box empty.
“We’re moving them now … because it’s higher elevation, it’s going to be cooler, and the snows are going to be coming in the next weeks,” Limbach said. “The bears have already slowed up and they hardly do anything but lay around and eat. At this point we want them to gain as much as they can. Then eventually… they just go into their den.”
During hibernation, bears don’t eat, urinate or defecate. Their bodies reutilize the uric acid and other waste, which would kill any other animal, to maintain bone and muscle mass. During that period, the bear’s body lives almost completely off fat, which is why they need to consume in excess of 20,000 calories per day while preparing for their winter slumber.
When bears awake from hibernation in March or April, their bodies must ease back into eating, as their digestive system has not been operational for about six months. They typically eat the catkins, or seeds, of aspen trees that emerge in early spring. When she started bear rehab, Limbach needed a way to get the bears from their captive hibernation spot to the catkins.
“We kept looking at what would be the most natural thing for these bears to get them back into what’s a normal cycle, and [winter release] is it,” she said. “Otherwise you can’t get to the high country until mid-June, and that’s not fair because the bear wakes up sometime in April and says, ‘OK, I’m ready to be fed now, where’s the catkins?’ But we can’t get to the catkins.”
For the final release, the foundation team, after checking on the bears throughout the winter, teams up with CPW officers and tranquilize the bears in February for transport to their final destination, relocating them in the middle of hibernation. The bears are packed on snowmobiles and driven to the backcountry, where the team builds snow caves. Once a pair is packed down in a snow cave, the team leaves and the bears eventually come out of hibernation when they’re ready.
“We just kept thinking … that’s their normal way of life,” Limbach recalled. “Waking up out in the woods in a den, digging your way out of your snow bank, and going, ‘Oh, OK, here I am.’ When they come out, we hope that we were just a nightmare they had, and they go back to being in the normal cycle because that’s what they would have been doing had they not been interrupted by people.”
By the time the two sets of orphaned bear cubs are taken for final release they’ll be yearlings. Each set of cubs will go to a different location. When the solitary creatures emerge from their slumbers, each pair also will eventually go their own ways. Female bears can stay in the area where they come out of hibernation, but males instinctively know it is the territory of another male and leave to find their own.
All bears that go through rehab are tagged and microchipped, so Limbach gets reports on their shenanigans from time to time. Most bears move on and are never heard from again, and that’s what she hopes will happen with these four cubs.
“We know when they’ve been taken in legal hunts, which has just been a few,” Limbach said. “That’s really disappointing. Hopefully they go on to live to be 20, and we know from studies that they do. When I teach my wildlife classes, that’s one thing I ask little kids. I talk about prey and predators, then I ask what is the top predator? It’s the human being.”
Although the accident wasn’t their fault, residents of the Roaring Fork Club were concerned about the cubs orphaned by a vehicle near their neighborhood and donated money to the foundation to assist with their care. For his part, Heeney was eventually cited, paid a $1,375.50 fine and was assessed 15 points against his hunting license. He also voluntarily made what Limbach describes as “a substantial donation” to help with the cost of rehabilitating the cubs of the nursing sow he shot out of a tree.
(Editor’s note: The Aspen Daily News will accompany the team when they release the cubs in February.)