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UC Berkeley Web Feature

Orphaned bear cub snuggles into new home at Sagehen reserve

– The Sagehen Creek Field Station just north of Truckee in the Sierra Nevada is becoming a haven for orphaned bear cubs. This week, a third cub was relocated here in advance of an approaching storm that threatened to dump several feet of new snow over his den.

Biologists ready sedated black bear cub for transport
California Department of Fish & Game biologist Jason Holley (foreground) readies a sedated black bear cub for transport to its new den site at Sagehen Creek Field Station. (Photos by Pamela Swift/California Department of Fish and Game)
The field station, operated by the University of California, Berkeley, was chosen as the 1-year-old cub's new home by the California Department of Fish and Game, which in February 2005 successfully relocated two other orphaned bear cubs to the research reserve. All three cubs are black bears, the only remaining species of bears in California. Each of their mothers was hit and killed by vehicles.

Station manager Jeff Brown estimates the 8,000-acre field station could support a few more bears, though Fish & Game biologists are careful not to crowd the bruins. "Bears are really mean to other bears," he said.

The newest furry Sagehen resident was orphaned in September when his mother was struck and killed by a vehicle near Truckee. The underweight cub, only 40 pounds, was rescued from a nearby tree by animal control officers and sequestered at a Fish & Game wildlife rehabilitation facility at the department's North Central Region Headquarters in Rancho Cordova, outside Sacramento.

After biologists determined that the cub had not acclimated to humans, and thus would not likely return to developed areas to forage for food, Fish & Game statewide bear coordinator Doug Updike scouted possible release sites in the Sagehen Creek watershed, which is managed by Tahoe National Forest and the Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station. Then on Wednesday, Jan. 2, Fish & Game employees led by biologists Jason Holley and Sara Holm and wildlife veterinarian Pamela Swift trucked the now 80-pound bear to Sagehen for release.

Three TV stations and numerous reporters were on hand to witness the relocation, which involved sedating the cub, transporting him via snowmobile to the release site, placing him in an igloo-style plastic dog kennel with his bedding and covering the entrance with pine and fir boughs.

If the previous bears' relocations are any indication, Brown said, the new orphaned cub will wake up and leave the kennel to scout around, but return to hibernate through the remainder of the winter.

"Sierra black bears don't go down to hibernate and stay down," he said. "Because of our often mild winters, they are up and down and up and down."

Preparing to clip radio tracker to bear cub's ear
Biologists prepare to clip a radio tracker to the sedated cub's ear prior to placing him in his new home, an igloo-style dog kennel. The mask minimizes visual exposure to humans.
A radio tag was placed on one ear and a colored tag on the other, which will allow biologists to identify and track it, Brown said. The two previously introduced bears, which were by different mothers killed around the same time, long since lost their old-style tracking collars, but Brown said that a healthy-looking one had been photographed by a trip-wire camera this past summer.

They're lucky, considering that Fish & Game estimates that 70 bears died at the hands of motorists on Truckee-Tahoe roads last year.

Brown admits that introducing bears into the Sagehen reserve makes him a bit nervous. "We're a field station, and we have people coming through all the time to do research," he said. "But we are very careful to educate researchers about bears and we restrict food to only one building, warning people not to leave food in their cabin or their car" to prevent a bear wandering through camp from getting hooked on easy meals.

"Our hope is that this cub can return to its wild state and live a long and wild life."

See 2005 story about the other two orphaned bear cubs relocated to Sagehen, or read Jeff Brown's blog.