The Fortress is usually a place for bears who will no longer live in the wild. Monday night, four very wild bears decided to come visit, more or less.
“Well they came in on their own. They’ve been in the area and we baited them in,” says Les Kinnear, director of the Fortress of the Bear. “We put some food in the habitat and rigged the gate to close and latch on its own. And that worked to a degree. We came out at about 10 last night and all four of the bears were in the habitat. We were delighted to see that all three of the cubs were still here. We had worried a little bit that one of them may have been the one that was killed at Thimbleberry last week.”
It’s very important that the bears be collared and tagged, so they can be monitored. Tracking these bears can help scientists and wildlife personnel better understand Sitka’s bear population as a whole.
“Learning more about them, getting more information, where they travel, where they feed, what parts of the day they spend in different areas. How we impact them in their feeding zones. So this is all information that we need to know to be able to live better in their backyard and they in ours.”
Fortress volunteer Debi Terry says the bears had been hanging around the Fortress for a while, before they were baited in.
“They kind of watch from the mountain,” Terry said. “They come down at night. They scale over somewhere over the barbed wire. And just kind of come around, scout around, see if they can find any leftover food. They actually found a way into the shed that has hay and they may have slept there overnight. So they’ve been really smart about finding resources for themselves.”
They spent the night in the Fortress, and seemed pretty comfortable when I arrived. They occasionally looked and smelled up at the people on the observation decks, but didn’t seem too concerned.
“I think the bears right now are actually looking fairly calm. They don’t seem agitated. Actually where they’re laying right now is where they slept over the night. So they’re pretty comfortable. And they’ve been here several nights so I think they’ve kind of walked around before trying to see a way out and they haven’t found one yet. So I think right now they’re just kind of making time and being comfortable until they can get out.”
Meanwhile, in the other enclosure, the Fortress’s two resident brown bears splash playfully in their pond. But, unlike those two, this bear family is not here to stay.
“Last summer Phil Mooney from Fish and Game had wanted to radio collar several bears because we’ve got a lot of bears around town,” Kinnear said. “They come in for the berries, they come in for whatever they can find, while they wait for the fish to show up in the streams. Apparently he’s got four collars to put on sow bears here in town to try and keep track of them. And the options are to trap, or dart, or snare, and we have this opportunity where we thought we could capture a whole family here.
“They’ve been down in the area for quite some time, for several weeks, pushed down out of the Thimbleberry area, by all of the traffic up there. So last night we gave it a try and managed to get all four of them here, in our second habitat. So this morning Phil’s going to come in and we’re going to try and dart them, put a radio collar on the sow, and ear tags on the cubs and then kick them back out.”
Collaring and tagging these bears is not an easy process. They will be shot with tranquilizers, and then in the few hours they are unconscious, blood samples, hair samples, and even a tooth will be taken for study. Now to the enclosure–the bears might have been comfortable before, but as soon as the sow sees the gun over the enclosure wall, she gets very agitated.
She stands up on her hind legs. She chuffs. And then she charges, allowing for a clear shot, which hits her in the hip. She runs and stumbles and runs and stumbles, for over five minutes.
Suddenly we hear a growling whining noise coming from the enclosure.
“It’s surgical quality tranquilization, anesthesia,” Kinnear said. “She’ll be down. It’s just catching up with her now. She’s groggy on her feet, but in just a minute or two she’ll be completely immobilized and unconscious.”
Now, they will try to tranquilize the cubs. I follow Les Kinnear down and into the enclosure. Biologist Phil Mooney is right behind. We head over to the sow, while he approaches the cubs. He shoots them with the tranquilizer gun. One of them runs over to see what we’re doing, before the drugs take full effect.
And this is where we come to the snoring. The sow is lying on her stomach with all four legs out to her sides. And she is snoring up a storm. While she is peacefully out of it, the biologist will take samples and put the radio collar on before the drugs wear off.
And that’s how bears are collared and tagged, in the, not so wild. The bears will recuperate at the Fortress and be allowed and encouraged to leave this evening, back into the real wild.
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