It wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
After almost a month of working day and night to try to safely remove a mother grizzly and her two cubs from Bella Coola, an officer with the Conservation Officer Service (COS) dispatched the mother this week, trapped the female cub and sent the second club, a male, away for tests after it died unexpectedly.
“We tried everything to not have this happen, but sometimes the best intentions don’t always work out,” said Sgt. Jeff Tyre of the Williams Lake Conservation Officer Service.
Tyre had been sending officers out of the Cariboo region to Bella Coola since September to help deal with the increase in seasonal problem bears this year, likely due to a food storage for the bears in the valley caused by a lack of returning salmon.
Tyre was on hand Tuesday afternoon at the COS warehouse on Mackenzie Avenue in Williams Lake to meet officer Steven Hodgson who traveled the 450-kilometres from Bella Coola towing the large metal trap containing the visibly-stressed lone female cub.
Also anxiously awaiting the bear’s arrival were Angelika and Peter Langen, the owners and operators of the Northern Lights Wildlife Society out of Smithers, who have accepted the young grizzly into their grizzly rehabilitation pilot project – the only one of its kind in the world.
“Other places do black bears, and Russia has a facility for brown bears but we are the only ones doing grizzly rehabilitation in the world,” said Angelika, noting with the addition of the Bella Coola grizzly they currently have 39 bears.
“This is our first grizzly this year but the way the season’s shaping up there could be more,” she said.
Hodgson said the COS worked closely with the Bella Coola community, Wildsafe BC and the Nuxalk guardians since late September with this particular non-aggressive family unit, making every effort to move them away from potential human conflict using techniques such as hazing the bears using rubber bullets and asking residents to remove attractants such as garbage and apples. When that didn’t work, officers determined the bears needed to be trapped and removed for the safety of the community as they frequented the townsite and the estuary in search of food sources.
Hodgson said attempts were made to either drug or catch the animals, with the only success being that of the female cub.
While working to take away the trapped cub, Hodgson said the sow presented herself only 10 yards from him and he made the decision that he could no longer risk her being in the community.
“It’s hard when you have bears downtown,” said Hodgson, who helped successfully remove and relocate six other grizzly bears – a sow and two cubs, a sow and one cub and a large boar – this fall. “It’s stressful for the bears, the community and the officers involved. We did everything we could to save this family but unfortunately it wasn’t enough. We have to work harder as a community that our attractants are taken care of.”
Angelika echoes Hodgson’s sentiments.
“This isn’t a feel-good story,” she said of the cub being taken to the Northern Lights facility. “This is so sad, so unnecessary. It’s a real waste of two beautiful lives. The message (must) come out loud and clear that the community didn’t do enough to remove attractants. Communities have to do their share. We all have to work together, no one is exempt from this.”
Angelika and her husband both have backgrounds in training animals in Europe, with Peter having worked with lions, tigers and bears. He said he is drawn to the grizzly because of its “intelligence and independent” spirit. If all goes well, he will be working with the new cub throughout the winter in her 8,000 square-foot enclosure until her release back into the wild likely sometime in June.
Initially, Angelika and Peter Langen only intended to use their extensive animal knowledge to help injured or orphaned animals in need around Smithers, B.C.
“It was meant to be just for our area but in four years it took over our lives,” said Angelika, who along with her husband travelled to Cranbrook and back, then Williams Lake and back, in just one week to pick up orphaned bear cubs.
“I’m not proud to say we have almost 40 bears right now,” Angelika said, noting she doesn’t know why the numbers of cubs in need have doubled this year.
Driven by a desire to offset human impacts on wild animals, the couple have operated their facility, Northern Lights Wildlife Society, since 1990 and have rehabilitated 375 bears (including four rare kermode and 17 grizzlies) and 69 moose as well as numerous deer and other animals, to date.
“The cool thing is where we live, we can release them out of our backyard,” Angelika said of their success with moose, even teaming up with a company out of the United States to develop an artificial milk product for moose calves.
Peter added it is common for rehabilitated moose to stop by for a visit with their new offspring at their facility, with one moose visiting the couple every year for the past twelve years.
Currently the couple are also in the midst of a one-of-a-kind grizzly bear rehabilitation pilot project which Angelika hopes will help her and Peter, both with backgrounds in animal training, write the book on successful rehabilitation and release methods of the threatened species.
So far, 17 grizzlies have been a part of the project with good success.
The couple, for example, have learned that cubs in rehab need to stay awake throughout the winter and feed in order to give them the best chance of survival for a spring release.
“A bigger bear has a better chance,” she said, noting that for wild bears their greater threat to survival is human conflict while for rehab bears other bears are their greater threat.
“We can’t teach them to be afraid of bears like they would learn from their mothers so we can only help them get as big and strong as they can to defend themselves.”
Project goals for the grizzly program include providing orphaned cubs with a safe and species-oriented environment to grow up in, conducting post release monitoring to answer questions surrounding survival rates and possible human/bear conflicts as well as their ability to fit into the wild population and also to gather valuable information about grizzly behaviour, nutritional and medical needs and facility requirements, according to the society’s website.
Last winter the couple took their expertise on bears to the other side of the world to assist the Veitnam government in rehabilitating and returning bears, caught illegally for their gallbladders, back into their natural environment.
Angelika said though the work they do both at home and abroad can often be heartbreaking, the experience of releasing a health animal back into the wild is worth it.
“We believe in general every animal has the right to life and we are just trying to offset our human footprint (on wild animals).”