Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 24, 2001 - Issue 30



Bear Found During Fire Season to be Released


by James Hagengruber of the Billings Gazette Staff

HELENA – Hidden from public eye, Montana’s most famous bear cub slumbers away the days of February in a straw-filled box at the state’s wildlife shelter in Helena.

The burns on the little bruin’s paws have healed. A diet of Puppy Chow helped the cub nearly triple in weight.

Next week, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists plan to make good on a promise made in August when the 20-pound orphaned cub was captured by a game warden in a charred Bitterroot Valley forest.

The bear will be returned to the wild, but not without a final sendoff. Reporters from around the state and at least one news crew from California will rent snowmobiles and accompany biologists to a man-made bear den along the rugged Eastern Front of the Rockies near Choteau.

There, the groggy cub will be placed in the den with another orphaned cub from the Bitterroot Valley, with the hope the two will slowly awake later in Spring and resume a wild life.

Despite temptations to transform the cub into an icon – one that could have been particularly useful for fundraising efforts for a new wildlife shelter – biologists were determined to keep the bear wild, said Marilyn Evans, executive associate for the Helena-based Mikal Kellner Foundation for Animals.

“FWP was very sensitive to the public’s need to know about the bear cub and about the cub’s handling,” she said. “They were very concerned that this bear cub would have a good chance of going back into the wild, as tempting as it might have been for it to be a poster child.”

The rescue was first announced in a U.S. Forest Service press release. Photos and stories of the bandaged cub were printed and televised around the world.

“Certainly the cub captured the imagination of a lot of people,” said Ron Aasheim, FWP’s conservation education administrator.

Although there was “meaningful discussion” over what to do with the cub, Aasheim said FWP quickly realized the best course of action was succinctly stated by Sgt. Joe Jaquith, the game warden who captured the badly burned bear. “This is going to be a wild bear if I have anything to do with it,” Jaquith said at the time.

The bear was treated by a veterinarian and given a home in the state’s small wildlife shelter in Helena. Although the public is normally welcomed to view wildlife at the shelter, the bear was kept out of sight. At least one radio station held a contest to name the cub – Crispy was a favorite – but the cub is still officially referred to as “the cub.”

“We think wildlife needs to be wild,” Aasheim said. “Wild things typically aren’t named. ... It’s demeaning enough for those little buggers to be down at the shelter living in the conditions they live in.”

The fear among many biologists and wildlife advocates was the cub would be transformed into another Smokey Bear. The original Smokey died in 1976 after 26 years in a zoo. His image lives on as a trademarked logo with 160 licensed products and a consulting company that advertises on its Web site: “Just think what a partner he could be to your business!”

But that doesn’t mean the Bitterroot cub had no public relations role – just a different and much more subtle role. Its picture is still used by FWP and the Kellner Foundation to help raise money for a new wildlife shelter, for example.

The new shelter will open in Helena in Spring 2002. About $1.1 million has already been raised, nearly half from the Kellner Foundation. The bear helped raise awareness, but it was in no way exploited, said Evans, of the Kellner Foundation.

“We’ve got to remember that Smokey Bear was in a different era and he helped with a lot of important causes,” she said. “This bear this time had a different mission. I think he symbolizes the future of wildlife rehabilitation.”

The new shelter will be a halfway house for injured and orphaned wildlife. There will be bigger cages and less chance for the animals to associate with humans, but the shelter will also have a greater emphasis on education, said Kurt Cunningham an FWP conservation education specialist.

“We’ve got to keep it hands-off to give the animals a better chance of getting rehabilitated into the wild,” he said.

FWP currently cares for an average of eight orphaned cubs a year. The released cubs have about a 50 percent success rate in the wild, which is close to natural survival rates for cubs estimated at 67 percent, Cunningham said. Success isn’t as good for deer, elk and lions, which imprint easily on humans.

Even if success rates are low, FWP will continue trying to help the animals, Cunningham said. Unless it involves threatened species, wildlife rehabilitation has more to do with education and public relations than principles of wildlife management.

A study from 1999 showed that 99 percent of the public wants professional care for orphaned bears, such as the burned cub from the Bitterroot Valley. Convincing the public that such a cub should fend for itself would be like telling a child it’s better to not help a baby robin fallen from a nest.

“If you look at it, the amount of time and energy that goes into one of these animals, it doesn’t make sense. We’re definitely not affecting the bear population,” Cunningham said. “Sometimes we have no other option than to get these critters and take care of them humanely. It just isn’t palatable to people to not care for them. It’s expected of us.”

Mikal Kellner Foundation for Animals




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