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Bella Coola grizzly cub heading home soon

After spending the winter in rehab, a Bella Coola grizzly cub is being prepared for release this spring by staff at the Northern Lights Wildlife Society - Northern Lights Wildlife Society
After spending the winter in rehab, a Bella Coola grizzly cub is being prepared for release this spring by staff at the Northern Lights Wildlife Society
— image credit: Northern Lights Wildlife Society

After spending the winter in rehab, a Bella Coola grizzly cub is being prepared for release this spring by staff at the Northern Lights Wildlife Society.

“She has been the most unusual rehab we’ve ever done, by far,” said Angelika Langen, who owns and operates the Northern Lights Wildlife Society out of Smithers with her husband, Peter. The two accepted the young grizzly into their grizzly rehabilitation pilot project last October after the cub’s sibling died and mother was killed by conservation officers after roaming the community for weeks.

Fearful, anxious and elusive, Langen said the cub has never warmed up to staff at the centre and has spent the winter avoiding all contact with humans.

“That’s why we named her Shadow — she just wasn’t there. She disappeared.”

Langen said they employed the use of a trail camera just to know if the bear was alive and eating. Otherwise, they could only observe her from a great distance without causing her stress.

Like all other grizzlies who have gone through the program, Shadow was kept awake all winter in order for her to eat and grow enough to hold her own in the wild upon release. Her diet in captivity has included fresh meat and fish, fruits and vegetables and even honeycombs.

“In the wild they search out the things they need. Obviously they can’t do that when they’re here so we have to feed them a balanced diet,” Langen said. “She likes apples and she loves grapes.”

Langen added typically cubs get comfortable enough with their caregiver, in this case her husband, Peter, to allow the monitoring of food intake and preferences, body condition and their general behavior.

Langen said she doesn’t know whether Shadow’s unusual behaviour is simply because she doesn’t like humans or if the loss of her sibling and mother pushed her too far mentally to cope with day-to-day life.

“We just don’t know and, with her release scheduled for June, we for the first time are apprehensive if one of our charges is ready to face the world out there in the wild.”

Another challenge will be to get close enough to Shadow to tranquilize her for the trip back to Bella Coola, planned for the third week in June.

“That’s the major concern right now,” she said. “But we have a couple of ideas.”

Langen said they are starting to coax the bear into a smaller enclosure where she has to pull her food off a pulley system they plan to later rig up with a tranquilizer.

Once sedated, the bear and the Langens will then have to travel as quickly as possible the some-1,050 kilometres by vehicle from Smithers to Bella Coola where the bear will again be sedated to complete her journey high into the mountains via a ride in a sling below a helicopter.

Shadow is the fifth grizzly cub to be rehabilitated from the area. In 2010, a set of three male cubs and a set of two female cubs were successfully rehabilitated at the centre and reintroduced into the Bella Coola area.

The staff, along with provincial biologists, have been able to study the bears in the program for about a year after their release using temporary radio collars.

Langen said one of the 2010 Bella Coola bear’s collar fell off at the entrance of a “perfect” den it built high up in the mountains the following fall after its release, indicating great success of the program, which is the only one of its kind in the world.

In fact, only three of the 20 bears rehabilitated through the pilot project so far have not survived their first year. Two were shot, while one was hit by a vehicle, Langen said.

The centre also rehabilitates black bears — 44 this winter — and do receive reports on the fate of those bears, such as a rehabilitated black bear that was shot by hunters last year.

“On one hand, it’s hard to hear he was shot, but on the other hand we had to celebrate he survived six years,” Langen said.

“This is really valuable information. We are grateful to the hunter for turning in the number. It proves that rehabilitation works — that they are not just being released to die.”

The Langen’s work, including the rehabilitation of Shadow, will be featured on a new 12-episode documentary series called Wild Bear Rescue set to be released sometime in June on Animal Planet and Discovery Channel.

“They did a really good job — we are happy with it.”

The Northern Lights Wildlife Society is run entirely on donations, with feeding costs alone averaging between $120 to $130 per day.

The cost to transport and rehabilitate Shadow will be about $15,000 when it’s all said and done, she said.

“That’s how we operate everything, by donation.”

From now until May 15, for every $50 donated to the society, the donor’s name is entered to win a trip to accompany the team on a black bear release this spring.

“Its pretty amazing for people to see that animal take off. It’s pretty awesome.”

Langen said the society accepts all sorts of animals for rehabilitation; from moose, deer and bears to foxes, squirrels and goslings from across B.C.

“Everything that comes through the doors gets a chance.”

For more on the society, check out their website at www.wildlifeshelter.com.

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