In August, two campers at Denny Creek Campground in the mountains east of Seattle heard a thumping sound emanating from the campsite next to theirs. They investigated to find that a mother Black Bear and two cubs were helping themselves to a large container full of dog food that had been left unattended. The careless act of leaving the food where the bears could gain access created a dangerous situation for both the bears and humans at the campground. A wild animal who would ordinarily avoid people was learning that being close to humans could have benefits such as easily obtained food.
The campers alerted the camp host, and the bears eventually moved on. After being asked, the owners of the dog food container moved it inside their trailer—at least for a few hours. As night fell the tub was once again put outside, recklessly inviting bears and other wild animals to visit and learn to associate humans with food. A day or two later the cubs returned to the campground in search of food, but this time they were without their mother.
Denny Creek campground is bordered on each side by Interstate 90—heading either east or west, you run into constant 60-75 mile-per-hour traffic. It's hard to know whether the mother bear and her cubs crossed the busy highway on their way to the campground. They could have traveled under a bridge or overpass, or some other less hazardous route. We do know with certainty that they tried to cross the road on their way back out. As is often the case for wildlife living amongst us humans, the simple act of trying to get from point A to point B ended abruptly with catastrophic results: the mother bear was struck and killed by a car, leaving the young cubs without a mother to care for them. Miraculously the cubs were uninjured. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) received a report of the cubs clinging to their mother's lifeless body on the shoulder of I-90. But when officers arrived to investigate, they were nowhere to be found. Not knowing what to do after the loss of their mother, the cubs had stuck together and headed back in the direction from which they had come—back to Denny Creek Campground. After campers alerted WDFW agents to the orphaned bears' return, the cubs were safely captured and brought to PAWS.
Now in PAWS' care, the bear cubs are both doing well. They have been joined by two additional cubs: one a young female bear whose mother was killed by a hunter. The other is a male who is recovering from a fractured jaw. After he and his mother had wandered into a Renton neighborhood, a WDFW agent darted the cub with the intent of capturing and relocating both the young bear and his mother. Unfortunately, the cub climbed a tall tree immediately after being darted. When the drugs took effect he fell and broke his jaw in the process.
All four cubs have gained significant weight in the short time they have been with PAWS, and are showing the appropriate behaviors that bears should have, especially a healthy fear of humans. By late fall they will have a thick enough fat layer to get them through their winter hibernation, which they will begin in den boxes at PAWS Wildlife Center. Once we are well into the winter season, the cubs will be moved to artificial dens at remote release sites in the Cascade Mountains chosen by the WDFW. There they will spend the remainder of the season in these dens, and upon waking in the spring will be free again. Hopefully, the traumatic events that they experienced this summer will be remembered as nothing more than a bad dream.
The difficulties that these cubs have endured illustrate just a few of the challenges wild animals face in a landscape increasingly dominated by human development. These challenges are certain to grow as the human population in Washington State continues to rise, and with it the need for housing, infrastructure and transportation. If we wish to preserve the wonderful diversity of wildlife with which we share our space, we will need to find a balance between meeting our own needs and meeting the needs of the very special beings that are living here with us.
Despite their heartbreaking stories, these four bears are among the lucky ones. They will receive a second chance at a full, wild life thanks to the agents who rescued them and the medical treatment and rehabilitation they are receiving at PAWS. With your help, we will continue to provide the highest quality of care for bears and our other wild neighbors.