It’s all about “setting boundaries,” according to Dr. Julie Young, USDA Predator Research Facility wildlife biologist. “They’re adorable and people want to cuddle them — you can’t,” she said.
Young is referring to two baby bears being housed at the USDA APHIS Predator Research Facility in Millville. The 3-month-old female black bears were orphaned and discovered by Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) biologists who were tracking collared bears in southern Utah this spring.
They arrived at the Predator Research Facility cold, hungry and weighing only about five pounds each. The cubs will spend several months at the facility being cared for and eventually released back into the wild.
“When we first got them,” Young said, “we were having to bottle feed them. It felt like having babies because you were up in the middle of the night to feed them, up in the morning to feed them.”
Like babies, the cubs needed to be fed about every four hours. For six weeks, Young said a number of undergraduate veterinarian students from Utah State University volunteered to feed and clean them.
“There were a lot of sleepless nights,” she said. After feeding them, “we’d have to give them little sponge baths. Now they’re beyond that; we are completely hands off now that they’re older.”
Biologists found the young cubs while tracking their mother. Once they realized she was not coming back for them, they were transported to the Millville facility.
“We used to take them to Boise,” according to Darren DeBloois, game mammals coordinator for DWR. “We wanted a place more local and the staff here has the expertise to handle animals and they work with predators all the time. They understand how to take care of critters in captivity.”
DeBloois isn’t sure why the cubs were orphaned but he said it does happen. On average, roughly two to four bear cubs are orphaned and then rehabilitated by biologists each year, he said.
“Two years ago, we had seven baby bears that we found and had to rehabilitate. Last year there weren’t any, and now this year, there are two,” said DeBloois.
The cubs have already tripled their weight since arriving at the facility. They have been weaned from the bottle and are now eating produce, as well as some fish. Because their diet in nature is primarily vegetarian, the biologist match that during their stay.
Minimal contact is made with the bear cubs and that’s where “setting boundaries” comes in to play, according to Young.
“We are putting a lot of time, effort and money to keep these bears so they can be released into the wild,” she stressed. “If they are attracted to humans or human resources, they’re going to end up dead and we would be crushed. They’re adorable, but we want them alive; it is as much us weaning them and them being weaned of us.”
“We have also been able to conduct research while they are in captivity and will continue to after their release.” Young said. “This will help wildlife managers develop management strategies for rehabilitated bears.”
When released, likely sometime in November, the bear cubs will be transported back to where they were found in southern Utah and GPS collars will be placed on them.
“We use GPS tracking for a couple of reasons,” DeBloois said. “We want to know if they survive. We also want to learn if they migrate or end up relocating.”
Historically, according to DeBloois, baby bears that have been rehabilitated do have a high survival rate.
The USU College of Natural Resources hosts a livestream of the baby bears on its website and it can be viewed here.