The killing of an orphaned black bear cub by an Idaho Department of Fish and Game officer in Hailey last week raised questions about the viability of rehabilitation of bear cubs.
At least three organizations in Idaho are licensed to rehabilitate black bears. Idaho Black Bear Rehab in Garden City deals solely with black bears and Snowden Wildlife Sanctuary near McCall and Earthfire Institute in Driggs take in a variety of wildlife, including black bears.
However, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is reluctant to send bears there.
“IDFG will generally not consider big game animals for rehabilitation,” the department stated in a policy document most recently revised in August. “Relocation/release of black bear, mountain lion or gray wolf should only occur if there is a demonstrated management or conservation need.”
Terry Thompson, spokesman for Fish and Game’s Magic Valley Region, said the department did not consider sending the cub caught in Hailey to Idaho Black Bear Rehab.
“Successfully rehabilitating a cub black bear so that it can survive in the wild is not a guarantee,” Thompson said. “Additionally, rehabilitated cubs raised by humans can become habituated and create future human-wildlife conflicts, something the department takes very seriously when deciding whether to rehabilitate large carnivores.”
Sally Maughan, founder and past president of Idaho Black Bear Rehab, told the Idaho Mountain Express that “of course, there is no guarantee.”
“Our position is that they deserve a second chance, which we are always willing and able to provide,” Maughan said. “I would also take issue with the term ‘raised by humans,’ as we are housing, monitoring, providing food and medical care, if needed, but are in no way spending the kind of time with them that it would take to habituate them.”
Idaho Black Bear Rehab says it rehabilitated 225 bear cubs between 1989 and April 2019—134 from Idaho and the rest from six other Western states. According to its statistics, nine died of injuries or illness while in rehab, one was placed in a permanent facility and 212 were released to the wild. Of those released, 158 were still alive as of April—based on data from radio collars attached by state wildlife agencies or the fact that their ear tags were not turned in. Fifty were killed by hunters, predators, cars, poachers or other unknown causes. Only four were euthanized due to human-bear conflicts.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources assessed the release of 14 yearling black bears in 2005 that had been cared for by Idaho Black Bear Rehab since the previous year. The study involved weighing the bears at release and remarked that “both males and females were larger than yearling bears found in the wild.” It also stated that “despite having spent several months in close proximity to people there was surprising little evidence to human habituation.”
Current Idaho Black Bear Rehab President Amy Kidwell said she knows of no bears rehabbed by her organization that injured people after they were released.
Fish and Game spokesman Thompson also noted that Idaho has very healthy black bear populations and conservation management goals are being met.
“The rehabilitation and potential release of this black bear would not have contributed to the health and sustainability of current populations,” he said.
The rehab organizations place more importance on individual animals.
“Although our wildlife agencies focus on bear populations, it is important they recognize that the public does care about orphaned or injured cubs and respond to those concerns,” Idaho Black Bear Rehab states on its website. “Bear cub rehab should be the first option whenever possible in their bear management plan.”