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Front Page » June 7, 2005 » Local News » Bear tracks in Bookcliffs
Published 4,281 days ago

Bear tracks in Bookcliffs

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This young bear is a little hesitant as he steps from captivity to freedom.

There's a new cub on the block. Just recently returning from Boise, Idaho back to the place of their birth in Utah, fourteen yearling bears were released in the southern Bookcliffs in Grand County near Uintah County and in close proximity to the Colorado border. These 14 cubs were born in 2004 during the winter. During the spring and summer of 2004 due to drought conditions causing a shortage of forage for bears, these cubs were orphaned by their mothers. Four of the bears came from Uintah County, one from Emery County, one from Grand County and eight from Carbon County. The bears have been in Boise, Idaho at the black bear rehab from the time of their capture to June 8 when they were transported back to Utah by wildlife coordinator, Bill Bates from the Price Office of the Division of Wildlife Resources.

At the rehab center the bears were raised with the end thought in mind that these bears would be able to return and function in the wild. They are given food, usually puppy chow and fruit, they are provided with top of the line veterinary care. The rehab doesn't rehabilitate any bears to be used in zoos or sanctuaries, they are all reintroduced into the wild. Part of the mission of the rehab center is to educate people about bears and their characteristics and needs. Bears go through similar stages of development as human children, but do so in months rather than years. At the rehab center, the caregivers experience those changes right along with the bears and it is a time of learning, joy, wonder and sometimes frustration for all involved.

The morning of June 8, the 14 bears were prepared for their trip back to Utah with a tranquilizer. They were then loaded into bear traps which resembled long tubes with a couple of air holes and a trap door. The bears were also fitted with radio collars by Dr. Hal Black and his crew from Brigham Young University where he is a biologist. Dr. Black is a bear expert and carefully guided the bears back to Price where they spent the night. Early on June 9, personnel from the DWR, Dr. Black's family and news media traveled along behind the horse trailer carrying the bears. The bears were hosed down a time or two on their way back from Boise, but they hadn't eaten since early the day before.

Upon arriving at the site for the first release a light rain was falling upon the very green trees and bushes surrounding the release site. Many comments were made on the excellence of the site selection and with adequate food and water available the bears should thrive in their new home.

Brent Stettler, DWR, said, "With the adequate moisture we have had this year, the division doesn't expect the problem with orphan bears that we had last year. There should be plenty of food for both mothers and cubs this year."

The bears being released ranged from below 100 pounds with the heaviest bear weighing approximately 205 pounds. The bears were all weighed in their traps before their release and the 120 pounds of the trap was subtracted from the weight. It took four men to lift the bear in its trap.

This bear pauses for one last good-bye.

After the work was completed and a check was made to see if the radio transmitters were working the bears were ready for the release. Sometimes it took one or two people to lift the trap door to give the bear its first taste of freedom in more than a year. Some of the bears bolted for freedom. Some didn't want to leave the safety of their trap and needed a bit of encouragement to come out. A few of the bears turned and looked back at the onlookers, but the majority of the bears, just headed out and climbed a tree to view their new surroundings.

The bears were released in two different spots. The remoteness of the spot was chosen because it isn't an area used for cattle grazing which should minimize bear contact with humans. There is little activity in the area, barring the natural gas pipeline that runs through East Canyon and the maintenance involved with it. The bears aren't expected to get into trouble in this area. Bears have an excellent homing instinct and could set out for Boise, but it's hoped they will find their new digs just what the doctor ordered.

Bears in the wild have a 50 percent mortality rate. Bears who have been raised in captivity and then released into the wild are projected to do just as well as those born and raised in the wild. The Bookcliff project bear release is a great experiment and a lot of other states are watching to see how things turn out with the Utah bears.

With expanding human populations it is easier for bears to become nuisance bears. Bears eat weeds, grass, twigs, insects and all types of vegetation. When leaving the den in the spring they will sometimes feast on dead elk or deer carcusses from winter killed animals. They will sometimes eat elk calves or deer fawns, but will not normally try to hunt big animals.

Stettler said, "The berry crop this year is expected to be very good which will be good for these bears. The bears love anything sweet. That is one of the reasons bears become nuisance bears and keep returning to campsites. We have a bear at Bristlecone boy scout camp that has been removed more than once and he keeps returning. It's important to learn how to camp in bear country. Keep your food up and off the ground. Do not store food in your tent with you, or you might have a visitor.

"Bears are walkers and they like to travel, hopefully with the cooler weather, these bears won't be unduly stressed and try to leave the area of their release," said Stettler.

All involved were happy to see the bears returned to their natural environment where with a little luck, they'll enjoy many long and happy years making bear tracks.

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