Two 100-pound bear cubs twitched as they were unloaded from their cages deep in the forest north of Truckee on Friday.
The sign of drowsiness wasn’t lost on a team of California Fish and Game biologists, who rushed the waking cubs by snowmobile sled to a makeshift den, knowing that the tranquilizers were quickly wearing off.
Their destination was a large plastic pet igloo buried in the north-facing slopes near Sagehen Creek that wildlife experts hope will serve as the animals’ den until the weather warms in a month or more.
The two bears, orphaned last year on the south shore of Lake Tahoe, were transported to the den site from the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care by truck, snowcat and finally snowmobile. They were left to hibernate near Sagehen Creek, a remote 15-square-mile watershed that houses a U.C. Berkeley research facility.
The mother of one of the yearling cubs was killed after being hit by a car near Fallen Leaf Lake. The other cub was found alone at D. L. Bliss State Park, said Doug Updike, a senior wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. Both of the cubs weighed about 20 pounds when they were rescued.
But the fact that the two bears, although not related, were released together, gives them a better chance of beating the 50 percent survival odds for relocated bears, said Updike. The two cubs met all the criteria for relocation, the prime requirement being that the bears aren’t spoiled by human contact.
“This isn’t just a relocation, it is a reintroduction into the wild,” said Updike. “They were clearly wild bears. They’re not ones you’d call garbage bears.”
Also important was the fact that the bears had stored enough body fat for their brief hibernation.
The cubs were the sixth and seventh bears to be rehabilitated at the wildlife center, the only facility in the state that has successfully returned bears to the wild, according to Ann Bryant, executive director of the Bear League, an organization based in Homewood.
The rehabilitation program allows no human contact after a certain stage, keeps the cubs in a specially designed enclosure and provides them a steady supply of natural foods donated by the community.
“They stopped eating around Christmastime,” said Bryant, who works closely with the center. “Before then they ate fish, road kill, all different types of fruits and vegetables, grubs, acorns, chestnuts ” anything natural that we could teach them that is food.”
The cubs didn’t like each other at first, but after a while they became companions. Cheryl Millham, executive director of the center, watched their relationship evolve on video from three cameras installed in the bear enclosure.
“Fish and Game wanted to put the cubs in two separate dens, not in the same one. That would have never worked,” Millham said. “We watched them on surveillance cameras and they sleep really close to each other and they’ve been raised together. (Fish and Game) listened to me and got a larger igloo.”
Watching Fish and Game place the sedated bears in the forest in the igloo was bittersweet for Millham, who had been the animals’ surrogate mother for months.
“It was a fantastic experience,” Millham said. “Fish and Game picked a beautiful spot. They went into the den in perfect condition.”
If the bears survive ” adult bears can live 25 years ” they each could weigh up to 300 pounds in five to six years.
Biologists hope that the creatures will wake and accustom themselves to the plentiful food in the Sagehen watershed, which is home to between eight and 10 bears, Updike said.
“This place is just full of green forbs and grasses. It’s just great,” he said.
As biologists squeezed the two fat cubs into the igloo they knew that they had done everything to give the bears the best chance of survival.
“We’ve done all we can,” said Fish and Game biologist Jason Holley, as he walked away from the den. “The rest is up to nature.”
Tahoe Daily Tribune reporter Gregory Crofton contributed to this article.
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