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September 18, 2008 3:00 am

Young grizzlies' release adds thrills and chills

Written by Tribune Staff

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Three yearling grizzlies were captured and released Saturday by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department southeast of Cooke City, Mont., because their mother was killing cattle on a ranch north of Cody. Mama bear is still at large, but will likely be captured as well. Tribune photo by Gib Mathers

A yearling grizzly pops his head out of a trailer like an ill-tempered, giant prairie dog sniffing the air from a hole. Then he bounds out to stand uncertainly in the clearing a few miles southeast of Cooke City, Mont.

He stands about 25 inches at the shoulder, but is fearsome, just the same.

On edge, the observers watch. After being cooped up in the trailer for hours, will the young griz and his two siblings dash from the trailer into the wilds of the Grizzly Bear Primary Conservation Area, or, in a rage, charge the people's position?

Another massive head juts from the trailer about the dimensions of a pick-up truck bed with a shell. She moves tentatively, as though fearing the gate hanging above her head could crash shut in a split second, sealing her in the black box forever.

She steps out and stands near her brother.

It would be a nail-biting experience for the observers if there was time. But these moments, which seem to last a lifetime, are over in seconds.
The third grizzly emerges from his steel prison. His big head swivels — beady, mean eyes survey the observers like a belligerent bull facing down a matador.

He takes a couple steps toward the anxious people.

It is another tense moment spanning another lifetime. The atmosphere is charged — it's frightening, but thrilling, to observe the majestic animals less than a stone's throw away.

What will the big brutes do?

Then, an unspoken signal is exchanged between the three beasts. In the blink of an eye, the three bears are gone.

The onlookers may be relieved, but they also realize they have been witness to a phenomenon they may never see again: Three young bears captured and released in an area where, hopefully, they will avoid negative encounters with humans.

These moments are etched in our brains like photographs to be taken out and reviewed for a lifetime with friends and family.

Luke Ellsbury, bear management specialist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, has successfully completed his mission of releasing the three young bears — relocating them in hopes that they will avoid mischief once they are separated from their mother, who has been killing cows on a ranch north of Cody.

In 2006, mama bear was captured and radio-collared after killing cattle near the same place where she recently has done the same thing. She was released south of Yellowstone National Park, said Mark Bruscino, Wyoming Game and Fish Department bear management program supervisor.

She returned and is displaying chronic, cattle-killing behavior. Bruscino suspects mama of killing six cattle in the area this year.
The rancher might be understandably upset, wanting the problem bear stopped dead in its tracks. But Bruscino said most ranchers who suffer cattle depredations by grizzlies like the bears. They just wish grizzlies wouldn't kill their cows. Likewise, other property owners are amazingly cooperative, Bruscino said.

Most bears don't kill cattle, though many live next to cows. Bears are opportunistic, and some will kill a cow on occasion, but a very few become chronic killers. Male grizzlies usually are the culprits. Bruscino said a sow griz killing cows is an exception.

Normally, the sow's fate would have been sealed. For killing cattle, and seemingly unreformed, her punishment would have been death.

But she will be pardoned.

Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., agreed to take the bad bear for study.

Bruscino said the department is committed to managing human-bear conflicts while maintaining a recovered population of grizzlies. The population is growing 4 to 7 percent per year.

That allows the department a little management flexibility if they are forced to take out a problem bear, Bruscino said.

The relocation adventure began Saturday morning in Cody when Ellsbury prepared to transport his grouchy charges, which were caught the previous evening, to the Beartooths.

The yearlings were captured by baiting a trap with the remains of a cow their mother killed.

“She's got really proficient at it,” said Ellsbury standing by the trailer. “She's been killing a lot of cattle this year.”

A low growl emits from the trailer, like a junk yard dog warning a potential transgressor not to come any closer. A grizzly, not happy with captivity, stares through the steel mash.

If looks could kill ...

The smell oozing from the trailer is powerful, like dirty, wet dogs that have rolled in a ripe carcass.

Bruscino does not believe the young bears have learned to kill cattle. So they are being shipped out, 60 miles as the crow flies, from the scene of mama's crimes.

“I don't think they'll come back down this way,” he said.

Bruscino said the young bears, weighing between 175 and 200 pounds, have not interacted with humans.

Bears mate every three years. Bear triplets account for only about 15 percent of bruin births, Ellsbury said.

“They're in really good shape,” Ellsbury said, admiring the cubs, which look as big as adult black bears.

The cubs were caught, drugged with Telazol — a safe bear sedative — given ear tags and numbered tattoos in the inside lips.

Catching and releasing bears is almost routine for Ellsbury.

Routine yes, but Ellsbury has a .44 pistol, a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with slugs and double-ought buck, and bear spray.

Ellsbury grew up on horseback. Before taking a job with the Game and Fish, he was guiding pack trains in the mountains. He has seen his fair share of bears, but never experienced a bad encounter.

Ellsbury respects bears and knows they're dangerous as all get out. Still, this is just another day for Ellsbury doing his job — releasing bears.

“This probably makes 15 this year, maybe 16,” he said.

Ellsbury said the siblings may den together this winter and then split up.

As far as wild animals go in this neck of the woods, Ellsbury said grizzlies are the smartest around. They are capable of problem solving and can find new food sources.

The biggest of the siblings regards the humans through steel mesh. He snarls. His snout is long and thick, mouth slightly open with his tongue curling like a golden retriever panting on a warm day.

Coarse, dirty fur brushes back from his flat forehead. Close-set, but intelligent eyes regard his minders. The eyes may convey a sense of deadly intent, but they also mirror confusion: “Why am I here? It this my lot in life, to be locked in a steel box? I want my freedom!”

Though intimidating, he captures the observer's heart, just the same.

His legs are wrapped in long, black, luxurious fur. Long, yellowed claws resemble sharp bony fingers.

It's time to spring the bears. Ellsbury purposely jack-knifes the trailer. He releases the spring lock. A rope attached to the gate then is secured to the bed of his truck. When he pulls forward, the gate is yanked open and the bears can escape.

Before them is a beautiful meadow with interspersed pine trees. Thick grass brushes the bears' shoulders. Like the winds of freedom, a light breeze ruffles their fur, tinted golden by sunbeams.

In a heartbeat, they're gone, leaving the startled group with a golden memory.

Usually, griz mothers turn their babies loose after the second year, but 25 percent wean after the first year, Bruscino said.

Bruscino said the bears are around 1 1/2 years old — this is their second season out of the den. They know how to find food and a den.

Although the mother has not been caught yet, Bruscino said she probably will be. Spending her life as a test subject may not be a perfect fairy tale happy ending for mamma bear, but it beats the deadly alternative. The young bears have been given a new lease on life and their chances of survival are high.

“They ought to do great,” Bruscino said.