Even in Griz Nation, it’s not easy to find a grizzly — let alone three orphaned cubs — a home.
Yet Greg Lemon with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said he’s “confident and optimistic” that between staff members’ and the public's efforts, the cubs will find a place to live instead of being euthanized. The cubs were captured and taken to the Montana Wild Rehabilitation Center in Helena after their mother was killed by a vehicle on Highway 200 near Lincoln on June 5.
Under FWP policy, if the cubs couldn't find an appropriate home within four weeks, they would be killed by lethal injection.
“If you peel down the facts, it may be the longer that we have them, the more interest is generated and more stones get turned over trying to find a solution,” Lemon said. “I feel confident and optimistic we will find a solution. It’s something that is taking up a lot of our time and effort.
“It’s great that people are interested in solutions and this shows that people really care about what happens to those cubs. We knew once they came in from the field there would be a lot of interest in the fate of those cubs.”
One woman offered to temporarily house them in her barn and also tried to reach out for help from a wide range of people, including prominent zookeeper Jack Hanna and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son. Others have contacted both the Missoulian and FWP to offer suggestions.
“We have had some facilities put the hard press on us to send the bears to them,” Lemon said. “But it’s a tough situation. I get the sense that while the public doesn’t want to see those bears euthanized, they want us to be judicious and send them to a facility that will respect them, their wildness and their importance to the people of the state of Montana.”
The three cubs are too young to be on their own in the wild, and unlike the black bear orphans that are fed at the wildlife center, sometimes for months before being released, grizzlies too quickly associate humans with food. Originally, FWP wanted them to be placed in a zoo that’s approved by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AZA).
One such Montana facility is the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. Director John Heine said they already have seven grizzlies, with room for one more, but he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to break up the trio.
“Taking just one of them can be troublesome,” Heine said on Friday. “It makes the one nervous and stressful, and the well-being of the animal is important. If we were to take one, it wouldn’t be in the best interest of that animal.”
Taking in a bear is a long-term commitment, Heine added, noting that they have a 36-year-old sow who has been with them for 16 years. It's been five years since they brought in a new bear, a 3-year-old that was walking onto people’s porches in Coram and getting into dog food.
Heine said they’re building a new facility that will be large enough to accommodate eight bears, with four dens for permanent residents and four holding pens where grizzlies can stay while awaiting placement elsewhere. They’re still raising money for the facility, which he hopes to have fully opened by 2024.
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The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado has heard about the three cubs and would be thrilled to give them a home, according to Executive Director Pat Craig. At this point, however, FWP would have to remove the AZA accreditation requirements, since the AZA only accredits zoos, not animal sanctuaries, Craig said.
“They did accredit sanctuaries a few years ago, but quit doing that. So even though we talk to them a lot and take a lot of animals from zoos, we are not accredited,” Craig said. “The AZA is the first hurdle they have to pass. But we have the space.”
He added that Colorado’s Department of Wildlife also limits the number of animals the sanctuary can accept. But Craig said since they haven’t taken in many bears in recent years, the agency probably would make an exception.
His operation houses 43 grizzly bears and 156 black bears that were rescued from illegal or abusive situations, as well as African lions, wolves, leopards, camels and other animals from around the world. The animals currently live on 800 acres outside Denver, with a second 9,000-acre facility slated to open by the end of the year. The various species are separated by fences on 15- to 20-acre plots.
“We feed them about 70,000 pounds of food per week,” Craig said, adding that the nonprofit, which is open to the public, employs 55 people with a $19 million annual budget. “For bears, it’s hard to find good places. Most people keep them in cages and a couple try to build habitats on an acre or two, which isn’t much better than a cage. Bears do far worse than the big cats and wolves; bears suffer the most being in a cage.
“In the wild, they cover 25 to 50 miles a day looking for food, so their mind is programmed to move all the time, even when they have food in a sanctuary.”
Lemon said FWP worked with the Zoological Association of America two years ago to help place two grizzly bears in a Maryland zoo, and that may be a route they try this year. In evaluating AZA-recommended facilities, he said they look at the entry costs and whether or not the organization is a nonprofit.
FWP won’t allow the cubs to be sent to game farms or “roadside menageries,” and the facilities also must have a demonstrated capacity to operate for the long term, since the grizzlies will be around for 20 or 30 years.
“The bears will remain in the ownership of the state of Montana, but be on permanent loan,” Lemon added. “That’s why it’s important for the cubs to go to the appropriate facility. We want to ensure they’re not in a cage or become the center ring attraction in a roadside show.”
The cubs are doing well at the wildlife center while they await their permanent home. They’re about six months old and weigh 20-plus pounds, and are exploring the facility while entertaining themselves on the jungle gym, tire swings and hammocks.
“Our facility is ideal for small bears,” Lemon said. “They came in really healthy, without any illnesses or problems physically whatsoever.”