A Smithers wildlife shelter is looking after a record 64 orphaned bear cubs, including a dozen from the West Kootenay/Boundary.
“It is unusual,” says Angelika Langen of the Northern Lights Wildlife Society. “The highest number we had in the past was 47. It’s been a lot, a bit overwhelming, but so far we’re coping and can offer these animals a second chance. That’s something. At least they’re not being left out there without any options.”
Langen says she is not sure why there are so many this year. In many cases they don’t know why the cubs were orphaned, although the most common causes are vehicle and train collisions.
However, she suspects that this past summer’s heat wave was a factor. Intake of all animals has gone up during the pandemic, and people are becoming more aware of the work they do.
“Also, we have an excellent working relationship with the conservation officers,” Langen says. “With all of us working together, more animals get the chance to survive whatever hardships they’ve fallen on.”
However, Langen says their volunteer base is stretched thin due to the pandemic. Although they normally have several volunteers staying with them, their numbers have been reduced due to restrictions on travel.
Langen explains they can’t just take people for a few days. With the bear cubs, volunteers have to commit to a full year, from the time the animal arrives until it is released into the wild in its region of origin in June, when they would otherwise naturally leave their mother.
“We don’t want to change handlers and get the bears habituated to humans,” Langen says. “If they just have [one] handler and know other humans are not to be trusted, that’s okay. But when you have different people feeding them, they become habituated. They think all humans have food. Then we couldn’t release them.”
If cubs weigh enough, they hibernate at the Northern Lights center, just as they would do in the wild. Late arriving cubs that are underweight are be fed throughout the winter. Releasing them in June gives young bears a chance to find their own place, and is also a time when food is abundant, Langen says.
She adds it is a huge commitment for volunteers, who are typically young people taking a year off either before or after university, or others who are on sabbatical. “They come from all over the world,” she says. “Right now with the travel restrictions we’re missing those people really badly.”
The full list of cubs from our area who are at Northern Lights is: Loki and Braan from Grand Forks, Scree and Tikki from Nelson, Oso and Karr (grizzly cubs) from Meadow Creek, Kólga, Bára, and Ebee from Nakusp, Gnotra from Salmo and Aino from Christina Lake. Some of them are siblings.
There was also a cub in transit from Rossland this week and a sibling to the Christina Lake cub that a trap has been set for. Langen says they are aware of a couple of others but have not confirmed whether they need help.
“We’re trying to be very conservative and only take those we know for sure are underweight and not able to hibernate on their own,” Langen says. “It’s always preferable that they stay in the wild and don’t have human contact.”
Although they don’t have enough funding to put a radio collar on each bear as it is released, they do collar a few each year, and each bear is tattooed, microchipped, and given an ear tag, so if it gets into trouble or shows up later, they will hear about it. Langen says the cubs they have collared have all done well in their first year.
The shelter relies on donations and volunteers not only to work directly with the animals, but those capture and transport the animals.
“It’s a community effort to give wildlife a helping hand. It’s wonderful to see how the community comes together to make a difference,” Langen says.