This tale of the three bears may not end as well as the storybook version.
Three grizzly bear cubs were orphaned last week after their mother was hit by a vehicle off Highway 200 east of Lincoln. If a home can’t be found for the bears within four weeks of their capture, they could be given lethal injections.
No one wants that to happen. But with limited options, the clock is ticking as Lisa Rhodin, manager of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Rehabilitation Center, works the phones and her contacts trying to find the three bears a home.
The sow was fat and healthy, about 20-plus years old with an unreadable tattoo on her gums, meaning she had been handled by state or federal wildlife managers in the past, according to Jamie Jonkel, an FWP grizzly bear specialist.
“I guess she was a good matriarchal griz,” Jonkel said. “The cubs were born this January; they were in good shape. Having three cubs is pretty common; what’s unusual is to have three survive into sub-adulthood.”
But in the busy Highway 200 corridor west of Rogers Pass and east of Highway 141 — where he recalls at least six grizzlies were hit in the past 20 years — the mama was no match for a motorized vehicle at 70 mph. She was struck and died immediately sometime on June 5.
“We never got the call from the person who hit the bear,” Jonkel said. “A trucker called dispatch and said he had just driven by a bear carcass, and he thought there were three babies on top of her.”
Wildlife managers pulled the sow’s carcass into a culvert trap and left her overnight.
“The first night, one cub climbed on top of her. We got him and put him into a dog kennel,” Jonkel said. “We got the other two males the next night. They weighed between 24 and 28 pounds and are quite healthy.”
The cubs were taken to the FWP wildlife rehab center in Helena, and are pretty traumatized, Rhodin said. They're too young to be on their own in the wild, but unlike the black bear orphans fed at the wildlife center — sometimes for months before they’re healthy enough to be released into the wild — grizzly cubs are almost too smart for their own good.
“Grizzlies are single-response learners, and this facility has so much stimulus — it’s small, busy, with people in and out — it doesn’t take one or two times of being fed before the (grizzly) cubs start to learn we are a really good food source, where black bears don’t make that connection,” Rhodin said. “There’s only one facility on the continent with a permit to rehab grizzlies, and that’s in Kamloops, British Columbia.”
The best outcome for the cubs is to be placed in a zoo that’s approved by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AZA), noted Greg Lemon, a spokesperson for FWP. Since grizzly bears in northern Montana are in the process of being removed from Endangered Species Act protection, he said FWP is working closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the cubs’ fate. But the options are limited.
“We also have our own policy, not specific to grizzly bears, at our wildlife facility; it’s generally four weeks from when we bring an animal in for rehab that we are not going to be releasing into the wild, they have to go somewhere else,” unless they're kept for educational purposes, Lemon said. “Grizzlies are difficult to place.”
The AZA facilities usually are set up to hold grizzlies for a long time, since they can live in captivity for 25 years. Lemon said FWP was in talks with one facility in Washington state, but it has since accepted a bear cub from Alaska.
Rhodin added that plenty of zoos have AZA accreditation, but many of those try to change their educational or environmental focus every 15 or 20 years. Grizzlies no longer are seen as the “bear du jour” — instead, today those are polar bears.
“You see pictures of them starving, or on ice flows, and as the grizzly bears age out, a lot of zoos are modifying the habitat and exhibits for polar bears instead of grizzly bears,” Rhodin said. “And grizzlies are expensive to feed; that’s part of the reason we look for AZA facilities, because they have 20-year plans.”
Two grizzly cubs that were orphaned and captured in 2016 were kept together and temporarily placed at Zoo Montana until the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore readied its facility to accept them in 2017. Those involved with these three bears hope that something similar might be an option.
But with their fates unknown, Rhodin is continuing her efforts to find them a home.
“Right now, we have no good leads,” Rhodin said dejectedly.