Bear cub found on Cuesta Grade is returned to wild

After six months of rehabilitation, orphaned bear is released in eastern San Luis Obispo County

dsneed@thetribunenews.comMarch 30, 2012 

Six months ago, a black bear cub was found injured and emaciated at the top of the Cuesta Grade, weighing just 15 pounds.

Thursday, the orphaned animal, now a healthy 45 pounds, was released back into the wild at a remote location on the Chimineas Ranch in eastern San Luis Obispo County — marking the end of a remarkable, unusual odyssey.

Marc Kenyon, the state’s bear program coordinator, placed the tranquilized animal in a specially prepared den at the base of a rock outcropping overlooking a lush meadow and covered the opening with branches.

The team of California Department of Fish and Game biologists then got into their pickups and drove away. If all went as planned, the furry brown female cub woke up from the tranquilizer a few hours later and broke out of the den to begin foraging, Kenyon said.

“She should have everything she needs — plenty of food and water,” Kenyon said.

Before the healthy cub was released, it stirred restlessly in its cage and emitted a series of grunts. “That means she’s mad at us, which is a good sign,” Kenyon said.

The biologists affixed a small radio transmitter to the cub’s ear while she was tranquilized. This device will operate for 384 days, allowing Bob Stafford, DFG wildlife biologist for the county, to monitor the bear’s status for a year.

“I’m curious to see where she’ll go,” Stafford said.

This cub’s odyssey began six months ago when she was found at the top of the Cuesta Grade, where her mother was likely killed by a car on Highway 101.

Stafford rescued the cub and sent it to Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, the state’s only licensed bear rehabilitation center.

The bear’s prognosis was not good. She weighed only 15 pounds and had a large abscess on her jaw, the infection from which had spread to one eye.

Veterinarians treated the bear’s wounds, let her gain weight and taught her some basic survival skills she would have learned from her mother. A key component of the rehabilitation is minimizing human contact so the bear does not lose its natural fear of people.

In late December, the bear was sedated to induce hibernation in anticipation of its release back to the wild. The release was scheduled for January, but it was delayed several times because of bad weather.

The release date was eventually set for Thursday, and elaborate preparations began to maximize the bear’s chances of survival. First, Stafford selected the most remote location he could find that was still accessible by bumpy dirt road.

“If we released her where we picked her up, she’d be in Santa Margarita or back on Highway 101 in no time,” he said.

He selected a remote site west of the Carrizo Plain National Monument that is part of a 33,000-acre state wildlife refuge.

Once the team arrived at the Chimineas Ranch, Kenyon gave the bear enough tranquilizer to immobilize her for three hours. While the drug took effect, the DFG crew set about preparing the den and its environs for the release.

They lined the bottom of the den — a niche in the rock outcropping — with pine needles and grass they had brought from Lake Tahoe. The familiar bedding was to soothe the bear when she woke up.

They also spread several pounds of raw mixed nuts around the area, as well as some frozen bluegill fish caught from a nearby pond. The nuts are a familiar food from the rehab center, and the fish are an example of a food source available near the release site, Kenyon explained.

Survival expected

Although the 45-pound bear is small — adult female black bears are typically 200 to 300 pounds — the crew said the bear’s chances for survival are good. While in captivity, the cub had a reputation for being feisty, a quality that will serve her well in the wild.

The release site is ideal. In addition to fish in the lake, there’s a plentiful supply of acorns — another favorite food of bears. The spring release time also coincides with the time when the bear would have been weaned from her mother and begun living on her own.

But the best thing about the site is that it is miles from the nearest human or paved road. Most rehabilitated cubs survive their first year. Those who don’t most often die after being hit by cars, Kenyon said.

After the bear was safely ensconced in its den, the release crew was in a celebratory mood. Often, the Department of Fish and Game’s encounters with bears don’t have such a happy ending.

In the summer, Stafford was forced to issue a permit to have a marauding black bear killed near San Luis Obispo High School, a move some in the community found objectionable.

The department has also proposed allowing bear hunting in San Luis Obispo County. That idea was shelved indefinitely in the face of considerable public opposition and pending more study of the status of bears in the county.

The department’s estimate of the county’s bear population is 1,067.

Click here for more photos of the bear cub »

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