Bear cub No. 294 is asleep again, curled up on a plastic sled and blindfolded with a red bandana.
Moments earlier, the tranquilizer injected through his thick brown fur and layers of winter fat had worn off, so while the other bears dozed in a trailer cruising down a highway in Colorado Springs, No. 294 woke up. The black bear cub, just under a year old, poked his nose and then a paw through a skinny window, throwing enough weight around the trailer to make wildlife officer Tim Kroening think he had a flat tire.
But after a second dose of tranquilizer, No. 294 was back in a deep sleep Tuesday afternoon, sighing heavily every few seconds as a group of Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers pulled him through the snow on a sled to his new home. The cub and seven others — all orphans whose mothers were poached, killed by vehicles or euthanized for bad behavior — were placed in man-made dens on Pikes Peak.
The hope is that they wake up in the spring and start looking for food in the forest, far from Colorado Springs, Woodland Park and other towns where their mothers taught them to tip garbage cans or poke through people’s garages for dog food.
“Best-case scenario, we never see them again,” said Kroening, covered in straw and snow after strapping on a headlamp and crawling on his belly into the den. It was Kroening’s job to give No. 294 and each of the other three cubs sharing the den made of straw and sticks injections to reverse the tranquilizer just before trudging away through shin-deep snow.
Of the seven orphan bears placed in the same two Pikes Peak dens last winter, wildlife officers heard from only one of them again. The animal was euthanized after finding its way back to town to look for garbage, severely underweight and unhealthy.
This year’s batch of orphan cubs were among 15 that spent the fall at a rehabilitation center, a 180-acre nonprofit in Wetmore, in southern Colorado. They were fattened up with acorns, berries and grass, but also hazed with loud noises and blasts of water so they would learn to fear humans.
Included in the eight cubs placed on Pikes Peak by the Parks and Wildlife’s southeast regional office was a set of triplets orphaned after their mother broke into a house looking for food and was put down by wildlife officers.
The batch also included a pair of twins found abandoned in Colorado Springs. One of the twins was rescued from a tree by wildlife manager Phil Gurule, who used a fire department ladder and a catchpole to grab the cub. A couple of hours later, a worker from a power plant about two miles away from the tree called to say a bear cub had climbed the fence and was inside the plant.
The twins each weighed only about 35 pounds, too young to survive on their own, Gurule said. Authorities never figured out what happened to their mother.
In 2017, a record 216 bears were euthanized in Colorado and 108 were relocated. That was a huge jump from 2016, when 38 bears were put down.
The numbers for 2018 have not yet been tallied, but wildlife officials said not as many bears were euthanized last year as in 2017, when two late freezes killed off many of the chokecherries, serviceberries and other plants that feed bears in the months before hibernation.
Colorado has a black bear population of about 20,000 and no longer has grizzlies.
The fluctuation in the number of bear-human encounters from year to year is directly related to drought, late freezes and hailstorms that leave the animals scrounging for food, wildlife managers said. Only bears deemed dangerous — because they harmed a human or broke into a house — are euthanized on first offense. Bears caught raiding garbage cans are hazed by wildlife officers with rubber bullets and tasers, and when that doesn’t work, are trapped and relocated far from the city. They are euthanized if they return.
“Putting down a bear is nothing I ever want. It’s the worst part of my job,” Gurule said, after helping place four orphans in their den, each of them facing a different direction so they could sleep better. “At least we are giving these guys a second chance to go out and be bears.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife made two dens on Pikes Peak, one on the north slope and one on the south. Their locations are secret, out of concern that people might try to find them. Each is made of sticks, straw, pine boughs and snow. The cozy structures are about 4 feet by 4 feet, and just over a foot high.
After tucking the bears in, wildlife officials packed the door shut with straw and snow and left behind some alfalfa hay so the cubs would find something to eat if they step outside this winter. A game camera set up last winter showed the bears exploring outside a bit during the winter but then going back to bed.
The cubs have ear tags and are microchipped, but they do not have radio collars or GPS that would allow wildlife managers to track their whereabouts come spring. That’s because each GPS collar costs about $5,000, plus monitoring fees to access the data, said Frank McGee, area wildlife manager for the Pikes Peak region.
Each of the eight cubs picked up from the rehabilitation center Tuesday morning weighed between 100 and 140 pounds, all of them chubby with round bellies and layers of fat. Wildlife managers credited Wet Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation, which gets no money from the state to rehab the bears. Instead, the center operates through donations and the leftover produce donated by local grocery stores.
Besides the bears, the center has a few bobcats, pronghorn antelope and two mountain lion kittens. One of the lion kittens was picked up in the woods by a couple who thought it was abandoned, though officers believe its mother might have been hunting.
They kept the kitten in their house in Walsenburg for two days and fed it sausage before calling authorities, said Bill Vogrin, public information officer for Parks and Wildlife’s regional office in Colorado Springs.
The cubs brought up Pikes Peak to start their hibernation in the wild were muzzled and had all four legs tied together before they were loaded onto sleds from the bear trailer.
Though No. 294 was the only one to wake up on the drive, at least two others were roused as their sleds began sliding over the snow. One stood up on his sled before wildlife officers pushed him back down and gave him another dose of tranquilizer.
Several times, officers and volunteers paused to make sure the cubs were still asleep, especially before descending a hill deeper into the forest. Otherwise, “we’d have a rodeo,” said volunteer Joe Kraudelt as he helped guide a sled.
The goal was to keep the cubs “just enough asleep” so they would adjust easily when the tranquilizers wore off and they woke up in the den.
Cubs typically den with their mothers and siblings, so packing four in a den was the best option, officers said. As the bears sighed and slept on snow before wildlife managers pulled them into the den, assistant area wildlife manager Cody Wigner estimated their body temperatures at about 100 degrees.
The officers who placed the bears in the den are, in many cases, the same ones who found them abandoned last summer. “It’s kind of bittersweet,” Wigner said. “The sweet part is that these cubs are getting another chance, and the sad part is they’re orphans.”
A group of citizens, spurred by the euthanization of a bear that was eating garbage in the Cheyenne Canyon neighborhood of Colorado Springs, is now pushing for stricter city ordinances to protect bears. It’s illegal to feed bears, but the group also wants the city to require homeowners west of Interstate 25 to use bear-proof trash cans.
“Garbage kills bears,” said Christine Vercellino, a member of the group. “They need our help. They need their mothers.”