Can you really rehab a wild, woolly, and strong-willed young grizzly bear? In particular, is it possible to set cubs on a straight path after they’ve witnessed their mother killing and feeding upon a human?
In recent weeks, a vociferous public debate has erupted over whether wayward bears can be brought into captivity, rehabilitated, and then turned loose into the wilds from whence they came.
The controversy follows the National Park Service's decision to euthanize a well-known Yellowstone grizzly mother that killed and fed on a hiker in August.
Although the female bear, nicknamed Blaze by wildlife photographers, had never previously caused trouble, Park Superintendent Dan Wenk reasoned that because she partially consumed the man, she—and by extension her impressionable cubs—might regard people as a food source in the future. (Related: "What Do You Do With a Bear That Kills a Person?")
So Wenk decided to send her cubs to live at Ohio's Toledo Zoo, where they arrived this week—despite a major backlash from bear advocates.
Nearly 200,000 people have signed a petition asking the park service to send the orphaned twins orphans to a rehab center. Jane Goodall even weighed in, arguing the orphans should have gone instead to a facility capable of preparing them for possible return to their homeland.
But Wenk and Yellowstone's senior bear manager, Kerry Gunther, claim it’s easier said than done. The continental U.S. has no grizzly rehab facilities, and it hasn't been embraced there as a possible management practice, experts say.
“Believe me, had it been a ready viable option, I would have seriously considered it,” Wenk says.
But rehab should be an option for U.S. grizzlies, because there's plenty of evidence it works, says John. J. Beecham, co-chair of the Human-Bear Conflicts Expert Team of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Bear Specialist Group.
“Hundreds of bears have been successfully rehabilitated and returned to the wild worldwide, including some in British Columbia, Canada, and more than 60 grizzly bears in Europe," says Beecham.
He should know: In an upcoming study in The Journal of Wildlife Management, Beecham and colleagues examined the fates of 550 captive-reared bruins raised in rehab facilities in a dozen geographical locations on three continents—including the countries of Canada, Romania, and Greece.
The team discovered, for instance, that rehabbed European brown bears—a grizzly relative—do not live near roads or human settlements, as was previously thought. Their survival rates of 50 to 100 percent, rates of conflict with people, and reproduction are all comparable with those of wild bears.
"There is no reason for not allowing the Yellowstone cubs the same opportunity in the U.S.A.,” Beecham said in a recent press release by Zoocheck, a Canada-based group working to protect wild animals.
Reform School for Bears
Just one facility in North America has an established track record with rehabbing grizzlies—the Northern Lights Wildlife Society near Smithers (map), a remote outpost in British Columbia. There are other rehab facilities that take in bears in Europe and Asia, but Northern Lights is considered a world leader.
Angelika Langen, a German-born Canadian who founded Northern Lights with her animal-trainer husband, Peter Langen, in 1990, says her facility focuses on grizzlies less than 2-and-a-half years old—the age when mothers typically leave their offspring to fend for themselves.
Bears come to Northern Lights after they’ve been orphaned—typically when their mother is shot by hunters, killed on the highway by a vehicle, or destroyed for behaving too aggressively toward people or property. “We have our bags packed and when we get the call we’re ready to go and get orphaned cubs in a moment’s notice,” Langen says.
Their clients are provincial governments in Canada, though adult bears that have been involved in predatory incidents on people are not admitted—they're considered too old to be rehabbed.
While some may think of it as a kind of reform school, the grizzly program—which began in 2007 and lasts between 8 to 18 months—isn't punitive toward the bears, or aimed at imposing human will on them, Langen said.
For instance, she has found grizzlies don't need be overtly scared to become wary of humans again, making her techniques a departure from "aversive conditioning," practiced by the National Park Service, which includes shooting bears with rubber bullets.
Langen says the regimen allows orphaned cubs to grow and build up their physical size and weight so that they can fend for themselves upon release back into the general area where they were born. (Also see "Are Wildlife Sanctuaries Good for Animals?")
During the bears' captivity, facility staff expose them to a variety of foods, present them with an array of stimulating challenges to mimic what they’ll encounter in the environment, and reinforce their instinct to avoid people and not associate them with food or comfort. In their enclosures, bears climb trees, scavenge insects from logs, and excavate dens under brush piles—all activities meant to encourage their wild, instinctual behavior.
"There are a couple of simple rules," she says. First, the bears interact with only a few people in captivity, including a veterinarian, whose needles make for a negative interaction that the animals remember. Ironically, having a negative association with humans makes bears more wary of people, which is precisely the objective.
Second, they're released in remote places where they likely won't see a person for a while—allowing their natural wariness of humans to return.
“Grizzlies are different animals from black bears. We have found them to be way more intelligent and will become habituated to people if the rehabilitation techniques are not done right,” Langen says.
Since 2007, 18 orphaned cubs have graduated from the sanctuary, and only 2—a pair of brothers—failed the test of rewilding by getting into trouble with people.
Northern Lights' success has steadily won the trust of Canadian provincial officials who at first were skeptical grizzly rehab would work. And at a recent conference, representatives from 42 different bear-rehab facilities around the world embraced Northern Lights as having the general best practices.
Since this spring, five more grizzlies have been let go to navigate their former haunts, all without incident. Northern Lights fits all of its released bears with tracking collars.
“The key is post-release monitoring. Every day we check their GPS coordinates and determine where they are and where they might be headed,” Langen explains.
Exposing the bears to a precise menu of wild foods while in captivity is less important than turning healthy bears loose into natural areas, where natural staples are abundant. Where a wild smorgasbord of edibles exists, bears will find it and do just fine, she adds.
As for Blaze’s cubs, Langen says they could have been rehabbed in British Columbia—if they'd been sent to the facility within the first week of their mother's death and with minimal handling by people.
“Had we intervened early with rehab and they had spent a year with us, I think they could have been turned loose again,” she says.
Money Better Spent Elsewhere?
Even if Yellowstone Superintendent Wenk had been in a position to seriously consider Northern Lights, it's not simple to send a bear across international borders.
Yellowstone National Park's bear manager, Kerry Gunther, found Beecham's rehab study intriguing, but he says that reintroducing reformed bears into the area surrounding Yellowstone National Park, with its higher densities of people and development, would be problematic.
Already, grizzly bears in the region that have non-lethal run-ins with people are routinely relocated—and not all of them fit seamlessly into their new settings, Gunther says. (See "Why You're More Likely To Be Killed By a Bee Than a Bear.")
Wildlife managers in the Yellowstone region of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho have an arsenal of techniques to deal with “problem” bears, and the animals are given many opportunities before they're sent to zoos or euthanized.
Rehabbing a bear is also expensive. The money could be better spent on investments that benefit bears as a population, Gunther says.
For example, doling out tens of thousands of dollars to temporarily house cubs might be better deployed buying out livestock grazing allotments on federal public lands to eliminate ongoing conflict between cattle and bruins.
Save the Bears
The plight of large carnivores is a concern shared across continents. In some cases where populations of such predators are dwindling, each individual matters.
Keeping wildlife within their native ecosystems is also important because of the knowledge that is retained and passed down between generations—skills that can be lost when animals are taken to zoos, says Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
The outrage over Blaze and the killing of Cecil the Lion also points to a new groundswell of support for animal welfare among the general public, he believes.
“Rehabbing grizzlies was never really on the table before as a third option. Bear managers need to expand their thinking beyond ‘It’s either kill the bear or send it away to a zoo,'” Bekoff says. (See National Geographic's best bear pictures.)
"Science suggests it can work, and public pressure demanding alternatives to the status quo isn’t going away.”
Environmental journalist Todd Wilkinson is author of the new book Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone. Follow him on Twitter.