Orphaned grizzly cubs get rare second chance at Scottsbluff discovery center

Posted 10/27/20

Two extremely lucky grizzly bear orphans saved in 2018 have yet another new home. Taken in by a Nebraska zoo, the the brothers known as Smokey and Bandit now roam in a large exhibit after a recent …

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Orphaned grizzly cubs get rare second chance at Scottsbluff discovery center


Two extremely lucky grizzly bear orphans saved in Park County in 2017 have yet another new home. Taken in by a Nebraska zoo, the brothers known as Smokey and Bandit now roam in a large exhibit after a recent grand opening celebration.

But they are the exception to the rule. Most bears in their situation would have been euthanized due to the lack of space and the immense cost of brown bear exhibits, zoo professionals say.

After arranging to receive the cubs, the Riverside Discovery Center in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, immediately began raising funds to build the pair a brand new enclosure. The exhibit has taken more than two years to complete — complicated by the pandemic —  and the bears were finally released into the 20,000 square-foot facility for the first time last Thursday.

By the time the zoo opened to visitors on Oct. 17, the bears were fully engaged in fun and adventure, much to the delight of a large crowd eager to see the bears in action. Now nearly full-grown, the cubs were made famous after being captured in a photograph along the Chief Joseph Highway by Powell resident Michelle Giltner in the spring of 2017, while they seemingly relaxed on a guardrail.

The Southside Elementary School teacher’s photograph sparked the imagination of wildlife enthusiasts. But the truth is the cubs weren’t enjoying a day of people watching. They were lost, their very existence in jeopardy.

On May 21, 2017, the day before Giltner released the shutter on the young grizzlies’ picture, their mother had been illegally shot and killed by a Cody felon who had mistaken the sow for a large black bear. The cubs, captured by large carnivore biologists with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, were lucky to have a facility willing to take them. Usually, when a sow is killed or euthanized, the cubs are soon to follow — a decision made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service due to the species’ protected status.

The problem is there are very few facilities with room for grizzlies, said John Heine, director of the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, in West Yellowstone, Montana. Once a grizzly is taken on, it’s an extremely expensive lifetime commitment and it’s rare a spot opens up for an addition to a zoo. “There are not enough spots available,” he said.

The center just lost a grizzly, one of eight bears on display. The boar was 38 years old. Finding its replacement will be easy. The center is also soliciting donations to open space for another eight bears at a cost of more than $3 million. That space will take one season to fill, Heine said, and it will likely be decades before another spot will be available. Grizzlies have a relatively good life in zoos, and adapt well to captivity.

The Riverside exhibit features an old West-style water tower that’s a climbing structure and offers shade and shelter. It’s also functional, releasing water out of its spout “like a waterfall into a small pond,” said the center’s executive director Anthony Mason.

The pond feeds into a stream that goes out into a retention pond outside the exhibit. “They love playing in that stream and rolling around in it,” he said. “They’re having a blast.”

The brothers have a healthy diet and now weigh more than 500 pounds each, although Smokey is noticeably larger than Bandit, Mason said. “We don’t have an exact weight on them because they’re a little tricky to weigh.”

Mason expects the bears to gain at least another 200 pounds or more on their diet of a variety of fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, beef, a mixture made for zoo felines and donated wild game. It’s important to supply them with plenty to eat to ensure they aren’t compelled to compete. Male grizzlies rarely play well in the wild and will fight to the death protecting their territory. Introducing a female to the mix would cause problems, but as siblings they should be happy together, Mason said.

The structure cost about $676,000 to design and construct and is the new “heart” of the zoo, he said. It is hoped the bears will help bring in more visitors to the small Association of Zoos and Aquariums-affiliated facility.

“We had a lot of people show up to the grand opening to see the brothers," Mason said. "We had really good attendance with a lot of people saying that they hadn’t been out here in years.”

The staff is thrilled with the results of the new digs after the years of work fundraising and planning, but are looking for ways to pay for care and upkeep is a never-ending process. The brothers will eat about $6,000 worth of food a year and it takes a full-time staff of six to care for the zoo’s wildlife. They take donations of food from livestock producers, farmers, aquaculture facilities in the state and even hunters. Cash is king, but hard to find with the country in times of economic uncertainty.

“Grizzlies make great exhibit animals,” said the nonprofit association’s president and CEO, Dan Ashe. “Zoos have perfected construction of exhibits and the bears are engaging and happy. The public really enjoys them because they’re animated and active. But it’s a big commitment to do it right.”

Ashe was the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service from 2011 to 2017 and worked closely with state officials in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. He said it has been clear for the last decade the greater Yellowstone ecosystem is at capacity and grizzlies are increasingly moving outside suitable habitat into areas of high conflict.

“Grizzly bear recovery has been a huge success. People have worked so hard for decades to get where we are now. Now we have to figure out how to coexist with grizzly bears or a greater percentage of them will have to be euthanized,” Ashe said.

There are 217 accredited facilities in the association, all working hard to find space for orphaned grizzlies, he said. “It’s an issue of space. They live a long time.”

It’s a lucky bear that finds a home. But it’s also rare. The state of Montana is working on developing a facility to rewild bears, attempting to keep them from acclimating to humans in hopes they can be returned to the wild, Ashe said. But it’s many years from being operational.

“We have to figure out how to live with our success. If you want fewer bears killed and cubs euthanized, consider supporting these institutions," he said. "It will take a solution of dollars to make that happen.”

For more information or to make donations, check out the Riverside Discovery Center at https://riversidediscoverycenter.org/ or the Grizzly and World Discovery Center at https://www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.org/.