COCHRANE – Crafting a home fit for the king of the forest, the Cochrane Ecological Institute has begun construction on a facility to house orphaned grizzly bear cubs.
The institute wants to show it can create the space to rehabilitate grizzly bear cubs, said president Clio Smeeton, because the bears are listed as
threatened in the province.
“It doesn’t seem right to us that cubs are orphaned and that they should be taken completely out of the population,” Smeeton said. “The population needs them. Every bear is important.”
Currently, the Alberta government allows rehabilitation of black bear cubs, but Smeeton said the province needs to take another look at its policy banning the rehabilitation and release of grizzly bears.
The facility became necessary, she said, after three grizzly bear cubs were orphaned when their mother was killed by a hunter near Crowsnest Pass earlier this year.
The Cochrane Ecological Institute (CEI) could have served as a home for the cubs while providing a place for them to learn the skills they need to survive in the wild. It was disappointing to see them go to a zoo instead, Smeeton said, because they lost their chance to survive in the wild and become part of the breeding population.
The institute has already found success in reintroducing at-risk species into the wild with its swift fox project that launched almost 50 years ago.
It was the first project of its kind to see an endangered carnivore successfully reintroduced into the wild in North America, Smeeton said.
“We had to fight just as hard to do it as we’re fighting now on behalf of the bears,” Smeeton said.
The program is now internationally recognized for the work achieved in helping the swift fox population grow in Alberta.
For now, Smeeton said the institute is focused on finding solutions to ensure it can rescue and rehabilitate orphan grizzly bear cubs in the future – if the provincial government gives the green light.
Once the cubs have been successfully reared and can survive in the wild on their own, they would be released back into an appropriate environment where there would be as little human contact as possible.
CEI director Ken Weagle added the enclosure draws on knowledge from other enclosures from around the world, including British Columbia and Russia, that have successfully rehabilitated grizzly bear cubs. He said it proves rehabilitation is possible; it just has not been done in Alberta yet.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” he said.
The fencing and clearing for the project were made possible by funding provided by WildAid Canada. Construction on the project is almost complete, Weagle said, adding the institute hopes to have it operational by the end of July.
The enclosure runs 550’ by 250’ and features virgin forest and an all-natural Foothills ecosystem with no line of sight to human settlements.
When bears enter the facility, they would be less than 12-months-old. When they are released into the wild, they would be around two-years-old.
Smeeton added that the CEI is a registered charity that raises money through its boarding kennel, grants and donations to run the facility.
Officials with Alberta Parks and Environment told the Rocky Mountain Outlook department specialists have looked at the research, but the evidence about success with grizzly rehabilitation and the safety risks associated with it is inconclusive.
Grizzly bears are unique in comparison to black bears, Alberta Parks and Environment spokesperson John Muir told the Outlook, because they stay longer with their mothers and spend more time learning how to hunt and forage.
“This means they need to be in rehabilitation longer than black bears in order to survive in the wild,” he said. “This causes safety concerns because the longer a bear is in rehabilitation, the higher the risk of habituation and aggression when the bear is released.”
He added that to the department's knowledge there is no other jurisdiction in North America that allows for the rehabilitation and release of wild grizzly bears.
Weagle said the CEI is willing to create the enclosure while conducting research and engaging with the public to prove grizzly bear rehabilitation can find success in the province and is wanted by Albertans.
The ultimate goal is to ensure that the government cannot say no to grizzly bear rehabilitation, he said.
Smeeton noted that CEI has been helping with black bear rehabilitation since 1985 – and found success.
“I would really like people to really think about what they would like to have happen to orphaned wildlife – because right now decisions are being made with no input from the public,” Smeeton said.
She added that the Blood First Nation is behind the project to help rehabilitate grizzly bears because of the significant place the animals hold in their culture.
Blood Tribe knowledge keeper and environmental advocate Dan Fox has been working with Smeeton and Weagle for many years, helping to reintroduce native species to the wild.
In the Blackfoot culture, the bear has been a powerful spiritual source used in ceremony.
“To this day that relationship, that spiritual relationship, has never subsided and has never changed in any way,” Fox said. “The bear … traditionally it’s been considered as a powerful symbol in our cultural ways.”
The arrival and development of the land by settlers in Canada has disrupted the natural balance of the land, Fox said. Animals that have lived there for centuries have lost their traditional habitats and have been slowly pushed out of their territories or killed.
Breaking one part of the chain fuels the destruction of the ecosystem, he said, explaining why in his opinion it is critical to have grizzly bear rehabilitation to ensure the animals can bring balance back to the ecosystem.
“We coexist with them,” Fox said. “These poor animals, all they want to do is survive and be in these traditional territories.”
Elders have passed down the culture and traditions of the Blood Tribe for generations, he said, and the connection with animals has always been a strong component.
“The grizzly is one of the most powerful animals in our culture. It’s like the lion in Africa – its considered the king of the jungle,” Fox said. “Every time one of these species is eliminated from the circle our natural way continues to evaporate. We can’t afford to lose any more of these animals.”
—With files from The Rocky Mountain Outlook