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Orphaned bears adapt to the wild in winter

POP quiz: When is the best time to release an orphaned bear cub in the wild to prevent unhappy returns?

a) In the summer, when there are plenty of berries to eat.

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b) In the winter, when there is nothing to eat.

Answer: b) In the winter.

"Once they are released, they will hibernate, and when they wake up it will have been a good four to six months since they have seen a human," explains John Thiebes, regional biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Back when bears were released in the summer, the results were awful, as the bears would seek rural homes and raid garbage cans. But in four years of releasing bears in the winter, Mr. Thiebes has seen only one flunk and get shot for raiding garbage.

From a strictly financial viewpoint, it doesn't make sense to hand-raise orphaned cubs. When they lose their fear of humans and develop a taste for garbage picnics, they become dangerous nuisances. And while grizzlies are endangered in the lower 48 states, black bears are plentiful.

But the cubs are so cute, and so many people are happy to donate the time and money to care for them, that there is really no alternative but to free the ones that can survive in the wild, according to Dave Siddon, founder of Wildlife Images.

"There is nothing cuter than a baby bear," Mr. Siddon says. "It's not just the people who are dedicated conservationists. It's hunters, fishermen, hikers, and bikers. We've had baby bears brought in by bear hunters." Besides, "There are so many bears in captivity, that there is no place to place bears in captivity," he adds.

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OVER the past 22 years, Siddon's organization, Wildlife Images, has turned loose 56 bears. Even after releasing four this winter, Siddon is still caring for 14, including Alaskan brown bears, black bears, a grizzly, and Asian sun bears, all of which haven't been released for one reason or another.

Siddon got the idea of releasing bears in winter from John Beecham, head of bear and cougar research for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The old way was to release the cubs in the spring or summer and hope for a good berry crop to sustain them while they learned to survive, says wildlife biologist Jeff Rohlman. It was more expensive that way. Bears in captivity generally don't hibernate, so you have to feed them all winter. And there is no break in their association with humans.

In 1986, it occurred to Mr. Beecham and Mr. Rohlman to take advantage of bears' instinct to dig a den and hibernate in winter.

Rohlman and Beecham have learned that if they stop feeding the bears a week or so before release, they will get lethargic and be more likely to hibernate. The key to success is finding a place where the bears won't run into humans for about a week while they learn to live in the wild. Beecham and Rohlman say no other wildlife succeeds like bears when they are turned back to the wild.

"Coyotes, lions, and things are basically meat eaters, and it is hard for us to teach them how to hunt and survive," Rohlman says. "A bear can eat anything, so you don't have to teach them a lot."

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