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Two Cal bears now call Sagehen Creek Field Station home
Orphaned cubs are likely to thrive in their new habitat; fortunately, they don't like people much

| 02 March 2005

Two yearling black bears are snoozing peacefully in their new den beneath 10 inches of fresh snow after being relocated to Berkeley's Sagehen Creek Field Station in the Sierra Nevada.


California Department of Fish and Game biologists Doug Updike (front) and Jason Holly prepare a yearling black bear to move into its new home at Sagehen Creek Field Station. (Jeff Brown photo)
The 85-pound female black bears, orphaned last June, have been cared for since then at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care in South Lake Tahoe. Though from different mothers, the cubs quickly bonded and were judged by biologists at the California Department of Fish and Game as good candidates for reintroduction to the wild. According to Fish and Game statewide bear coordinator Doug Updike, fewer than a handful of bears each year in California are suitable for reintroduction, so these two are the lucky ones.

"The number-one criterion is that they are not imprinted on people, that they don't have any acclimation to humans for food or cover or any aspect of their habitat," said Updike, noting that the bears had been raised out of sight of humans since they were first brought in weighing a mere 20 pounds each. One cub's mother was killed by a car near Fallen Leaf Lake, while the other youngster was picked up alone, presumably orphaned, at Bliss State Park.

"The best candidates are snarly; they don't like people. If you get too close to them, they get aggressive, they clearly hate being around people. Those are perfect candidates for going out, because that is the way a wild bear is supposed to act."

Updike thought of Sagehen as a bear-rehabilitation site because he has been following one of the local bears as part of a study, and thus knew the 8,000-acre watershed offered good bear habitat. Some eight to 10 bears make their homes there, he said. Working with station manager Jeff Brown, Updike and his Fish and Game colleagues identified a suitable site for the rehabilitated bears on a north-facing slope near Sagehen Creek, not far from a meadow that can provide fresh green spring forage when the animals wake up in about six weeks.

On Thursday, Feb. 17, Brown led a team of Fish and Game biologists on snowmobiles to scout out the den sites and, once they had settled on one, to build a den - a dog igloo donated by PETsMART that they buried in the snow. The next day, the sedated bears were shuttled to the field station to be ferried by Sno-Cat to the remote den site. Hair samples were taken for a DNA record, their ears were tagged, and temporary GPS tracking devices were strapped around their necks. The dozing bruins were then nestled inside the igloo on a bed of pine boughs, including some from their previous home, and the igloo entrance was covered with more pine boughs.

"It was just a big puppy pile," said Brown.

Fish and Game escorted a few journalists to the bear igloo aboard snowmobiles, but Brown emphasized the need to keep the den site secret. "They're in a remote site, and 10 inches of really wet snow over the weekend obscured all signs of our being there," Brown said.

While Fish and Game biologists did all they could to make the bears' den homey, Updike said that the yearlings might just pick up and look for new digs within the next week - hence the radio collars, which he'll use to locate them. In his experience, half of all rehabilitated cubs wake up and find their own denning spot, typically a hollowed-out log or, if Tahoe bears are typical of those in the northern Sierra, perhaps 40 feet up inside a hollow tree. He thinks the two young bears have a good chance of making it, even though they are the new kids in bear territory.

"These bears will have a chance to be free, wild bears and to deal with the challenges of predation and competition," Updike said, noting that bears that have become adapted to humans often end up dead or in zoos. "Despite those hardships out there, still they are wild bears and they have a chance to do what wild bears do, versus being incarcerated. As valuable as zoos are, from the animal's perspective, it's like being sent to San Quentin."