The mother black bear that was shot and killed in Bragg Creek at the end of August left behind three cubs who are now answering the call of the wild on their own, without the benefit of their most important survival lesson – how to build a den.
The continuing story of the three orphaned black bears and their chances of survival is unfolding among community members in the hamlet, as well as bear researchers and provincial wildlife officials.
Alberta Environment and Parks officers euthanized the sow on Aug. 28, after it got into a resident’s garbage. After scurrying up a tree, the three orphaned cubs were targeted for euthanasia as well, before residents intervened.
While the ending of the three bears' story may ultimately remain unknown, if a community meeting held in the provincial park on the outskirts of Bragg Creek on Sep. 7 is any indication, there will be no shortage of passion mixed in with science as the debate unfolds.
Sarah Elmeligi provided both at the meeting, which was organized by wildlife advocacy organization Bragg Creek Wild.
A PhD interdisciplinary conservation scientist and community engagement specialist, Elmeligi’s eyes welled up as she told the gathering of about 40 people how she felt about the mama bear being shot by Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) officers, leaving the three cubs behind. They are estimated to be seven months old.
“It’s all very sad. But we should allow that sadness to motivate us to change,” she said.
Elmeligi’s main point was about the need for more education. Her book, What Bears Teach Us, is about lessons communities can learn to coexist with bears more peacefully, so the tense debates between pro- and anti-rehabilitation proponents can be avoided.
“This is an opportunity for our community to step up,” she said.
Some residents and wildlife protection advocates at the meeting want the provincial wildlife department – AEP – to actively try and trap the cubs so they can rehabilitate them.
But AEP is bound by protocols outlining how interactions are handled. Their representatives were invited to the meeting, but did not attend, sending a statement instead which said in part, “Research on wildlife rehabilitation indicates that human intervention is likely to cause greater harm to these cubs based on their age.”
Lisa Dahlseide, education director with the Cochrane Ecological Institute (CEI), said that statement is factually incorrect, based on experience with the same circumstances in other provinces.
“I don’t see that Alberta cubs would be different than Ontario cubs or B.C. cubs but apparently the Alberta government thinks they are – maybe they’re redneck cubs and can survive better. I’m not sure,” she said, with a hint of sarcasm.
Current Alberta government policy bans bears from being rescued from July to January.
"All other jurisdictions rehabilitate more cubs in the fall than they do in spring," Dahlseide said.
"This is the age group that’s more susceptible to not surviving if they’re not with their moms."
According to Dahlseide, three facts stack the odds against the recently orphaned cubs in Bragg Creek. One, they would be easy prey for larger bears looking to fatten up for the winter. Two, they also wouldn’t be as able to fatten up themselves because without their mother, they aren’t good at foraging on their own. And three, they wouldn’t be able to nurse over the winter.
“It’s a big hit to them to lose their mother, and it would be nice if we could rehabilitate them,” Dahlseide said.
Not everyone was in the pro-rehabilitation camp. Wade Hornberger, who runs the Cowboy Roast House at the entrance to Bragg Creek, stepped up with a loud and impassioned warning for the pro-rehabilitation speakers in attendance.
“You guys have no choice but to euthanize these cubs. Would you rather have them die now, when they’re healthy and young, or do you want these cubs to be out there in the middle of winter, not knowing anything, and die of starvation?” he asked.
Hornberger told the crowd how a bear knocked in the door to his kitchen at the Roast House earlier this year trying to grab a loaf of bread while he was behind the door. He said he had to try educating his “bleeding heart” daughter that sometimes shooting the bear is the only option.
He said the pro-rehabilitation people are just asking for trouble.
“If you guys don’t euthanize these cubs, you’re asking for big problems. This is heading in a bad direction,” he warned.
Hornberger said he follows good attractant management (bear-proof garbage containers and proper grease disposal) but still has had four bear encounters this year, including one at 3 a.m. He chased the bear across Highway 22, only to retreat when the bear decided to turn around and chase him.
The CEI would be willing to rehabilitate the cubs, but they are currently in a legal dispute with the province, which has pulled their license. The province extended the suspension to the 2022-23 fiscal year, since the issue is still before the courts. The CEI is still able to continue to rehabilitate wildlife other than bears.
The CEI is proposing to partner on a joint research project on returning orphans to the wild with Dr. Peter Neuhaus of the University of Calgary (who also spoke at the Sept. 7 meeting), and the Kainai First Nation. To date, AEP has declined to participate in this research, the costs of which would be completely borne by the other participants.
The other rehabilitation facility equipped to handle orphaned black bear cubs is the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation in Madden, which remains authorized by the province.
The cubs have been spotted in the area since their mother was killed. For now, they will have to rely on primordial instinct to survive. Their only learned behaviour from their mother was where to find badly-needed calories made available by careless humans.
Now, to survive, they’ll have to learn to be wild to become wild.