With the salmon run unusually late this summer, wild bears have been coming down to eat the plentiful numbers of berries growing along the fenceline at Fortress of the Bear. The most prominent among these are a mother with three second-year cubs (pictured at left in a photo from the Sitka newspaper).
After cleaning out the berries, these four came over the fence at Fortress every night for a week. They never did any serious damage and ultimately fashioned a very impressive bed out of hay, straw, and shredded paper. They seemed to be making themselves right at home.
Consulting with the local biologist, he asked us if we could trap him in our second enclosure, which is currently empty, so that he could radio-collar the mother and tag the cubs in order to track their movements. We agreed and successfully managed to catch them late one night. The next day the biologist came in and tranquilized them with a full crowd of tourists as spectators. The mother was radio-collared, and the cubs tranquilized and numbered. The plan was to release them that night but the mother had not fully recovered from the tranquilizer, so we decided it best to keep them another day to monitor her progress.
Although she was strangely slow to recover, she finally did pull out of it and we attempted to drive them away the next evening. Two hundred firecrackers were thrown into the enclosure and we banged pots and pans while screaming and shouting. Despite everything we think we know about bears, the noise did NOT frighten them away. Instead it angered the mother and she attacked the firecrackers. Again, I have to emphasize: if you're enjoying outdoor activities in bear country, you should make noise....but within reason. Do not be an intrusive presence!
With our failure in driving the bears away, we left the gate to their enclosure open and went home for the evening. When we returned the next morning, the family had found their way out....but not before frollicking around inside the facility first. A reading from the mother's radio-collar indicated that they had only moved a half a mile away and the next morning we found that they had broken in again. After hanging around for another day or two, they moved off but haven't gone more than four or five miles. It's only now that we've discovered the full story behind what was happening. Apparently a large male bear in the area has been threatening cubs and this mother was bringing hers over the fence into our facility to protect them, knowing that their pursuer would not follow them into an area that smelled strongly of two large males. Considering the bed they made, their reluctance to leave when we tried to drive them away, and their refusal to leave the area despite the lack of a food source, it's the only explanation that satisfactorily answers all the questions. Now that fish have finally started moving into the streams, the male has moved on, giving this family a chance to get out.
Even so, they haven't gone far and are not on one of the fish streams. They haven't yet gotten into trouble with the residents, but if they do the tagging and collaring will identify them as research bears and prevent them from being shot. Instead they will be brought back to us where they will be given plenty of love and care. I've been off work a couple of days and haven't heard any news about them, but with all the recent sightings of the cubs, I expect to hear something new first thing in the morning.