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‘Absolute and complete rubbish:’ Alberta to release rehabbed bear cubs this fall

WATCH: The battle over two bear cubs at a wildlife rehab centre near Cochrane is heating up again. The province is now set to release them back into the wild next month. But as Gil Tucker reports, the people caring for the cub say that could put their lives in danger.

Alberta Environment says two black bear cubs being rehabilitated will be returned to the wild by mid-October despite concerns that it is too early.

The Cochrane Ecological Institute, a non-profit wildlife facility, took in two cubs after the province lifted a ban in the spring that had been in place since 2010.

The new policy allows wildlife staff to work with private facilities on the rehabilitation of cubs that are less than a year old. It recommends cubs be released back into the wild by Oct. 15.

Clio Smeeton, director of the facility, said they have asked the province to delay the cubs’ release until they are older.

“If you release bear cubs in a place they’ve never been at the age … of nine months, that’s at the time of greatest predation, that’s at the time at greatest risk, that’s in the middle of the hunting season,” said Smeeton, who has been involved with rehabilitating wildlife for 50 years.

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“I think the policy is absolute and complete rubbish.”

A petition, which now has more than 45,000 names, was launched last month to support Smeeton’s concerns and asks the province to delay the release of the cubs named Charlie and Maskwa.

READ MORE: Rehab centre concerned for Alberta black bear cubs as release date looms

Smeeton and the petition say most rehabilitated bear cubs in other facilities aren’t released until they are at least 11 months or older.

Paul Frame, a carnivore specialist with Alberta Environment, said their decision hasn’t changed based on the concerns.

“The plan is still to release the bears in October,” he said. “They are healthy bears.”

Frame said the province’s protocol was developed by reviewing scientific literature, talking to bear rehabilitation facilities in other provinces and getting advice from experts.

“Our primary concern in the past was habituation and rehabilitated bears coming into conflict,” he said. “The protocol we developed is meant to reduce the probability of that happening while still giving the bears … a chance to survive.”

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Frame pointed to a 2015 study by John Beecham, a biologist and renowned bear rehabilitation expert in Idaho.

In an interview, Beecham said there are two key factors that determine a bear’s success in the wild.

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“Bears had to be a certain size to avoid predation,” he said, adding the facility should ensure the cubs put on as much weight as possible before they are released.

Secondly, Beecham said it’s important for wildlife managers that the bears don’t get involved in conflicts.

“The shorter the time that bears were in captivity in the rehab facility, the greater the likelihood was that they would not get involved in conflicts,” he said.

READ MORE: Alberta gives orphaned black bear cub rehabilitation policy the green light

Beecham has recommended a fall release to both the Alberta government and the Manitoba government, which is in the midst of developing its bear rehabilitation policy.

“The data shows they usually enter the dens within a week or 10 days of when you turn them loose,” said Beecham.

The province said the details for the release are still being worked out, but said the cubs will be returned to the same general area where they were found.

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“We’re assembling a team of biologists and wildlife veterinarians,” said Frame.

“We will capture the bears. We will anaesthetize them. We will sample them for disease testing, assess their physical condition and we will give them a tag and a GPS radio collar, allow them to recover and transport them to release sites, then kick them lose.

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“We’ll try to put them as far away from humans as we can.”