A young male bear, one of the "South Shore Four" rehabbing at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care the past year after being orphaned as a cub, is sedated while being outfitted with identifying ear tags and a GPS tracking collar prior to release back into the wild in April. CDFW photo by Shelly Blair.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) licenses and partners with nearly 100 private wildlife rehabilitation facilities around the state that provide important care, shelter and veterinary services to injured, orphaned and other displaced wildlife of all kinds.
What happens to these animals upon their recovery and release back into the wild often remains a mystery. That’s true even at the only two rehabilitation facilities licensed in California to work with black bears: The San Diego Humane Society’s Ramona Campus in Southern California and Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care in South Lake Tahoe.
While the rehabilitated bears are almost always outfitted with an identifying ear tag or two prior to release, a feel-good video of the bears fleeing a portable trap on their way to freedom is often the last time biologists and wildlife rehabbers ever see them.
With a second chance at life in the wild, do the bears revel in their newfound freedom and stay as far away from people as possible and successfully transition to natural food sources? Or, after months of being cared for and closely watched at a rehabilitation facility, are the bears more comfortable around people, seeking out the nearest rural communities for the easy access to human food and garbage they can often supply? Do bears kept together in a rehabilitation facility and released together stay together in the wild? If so, for how long?
These are among the questions CDFW wildlife biologists are seeking answers to with the recent release of the “South Shore Four” – four young black bears, two males and two females, rehabbing together the past year at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care where they arrived as young-of-the-year cubs. Three of the four were orphaned when their two mothers were hit and killed by cars – one of the female cubs suffering a broken leg from a vehicle strike.
Fully recovered, weighing between 150 and 190 pounds each and old enough to survive on their own, the “South Shore Four” were released into a nearby national forest last month, two bears at a time. Three of the four cubs were fitted with GPS tracking collars that will alert biologists to their whereabouts four times a day if canopy cover allows. Biologists also receive a mortality signal 12 hours after no movement so that recovery and cause of death can be determined.
“We’re hoping to understand their movements directly after release, whether or not the ones that were released together stay together, the distances they travel and where they’re going,” said Shelly Blair, CDFW’s wildlife biologist for Alpine and El Dorado counties. “This is essential information to monitor the after-effects of almost a year in captivity and where they go. If they’re moving toward trouble – a campground or a community – we’ll be able to see that and get ahead of it if possible.”
GPS-tracking collars are an important research tool for wildlife biologists but also something of a precious commodity that cost between $800 and $2,000 each.
The collars are fastened around the bears’ necks with surgical tubing that will expand as they grow. After a few months of exposure to the elements, the tubing will deteriorate, and the collars will fall off to be recovered later. At that point, the South Shore Four’s research contributions will be short and likely complete, but will yield valuable information about the bear rehabilitation program and help improve CDFW's efforts to ensure the best possible outcome for these animals to be successful wild bears.
Video: Watch as two of the 'South Shore Four' are returned to the wild.