Wisconsin's bear hunting season ended this month.
That’s good news for a group of young bears that spent most of the year at a wildlife rehab center. They finally have the chance to be released back into the wild. As WXPR’s Natalie Jablonski reports, that release is also good news for the bears’ caretakers…who finally have a chance to get some rest.
Bear release day dawns cloudy and damp. Just east of busy traffic on Highway 47, Mark Naniot has rounded up interns and a small crew of volunteers.
“So what we’re gonna do – I’m gonna bring 2-3 people into the cage with me to do the tranquilizing. Because if everybody gets too close the bears are gonna be running around too crazy, and we don’t want that to happen.”
Naniot and his wife Sharon Larson run Wild Instincts, a three-year-old wildlife rehab center. They’ve been taking care of five black bear cubs since late spring.
“Three were siblings. That one their mother was killed by a car. The other two were individuals that probably somehow got separated from the mother. And both of em came in extremely undersize and underweight.
Those two were about 8 pounds. And when they’re that small, cubs don’t have a good chance of surviving on their own. Their main predators? Adult male bears.
"Male bears are cannibals. They eat small bears very readily. "
There’s also coyotes, wolves and fishers to worry about. Now these young bears are closer to a hundred pounds, and ready to be in the wild. Naniot enters the large bear enclosure, wearing thick leather gloves. He carries a nine-foot pole with a tranquilizer on the end.
Sharon Larson explains what’s going on as we watch from a distance. Bears don’t like humans, so we don’t want to stress them out by getting too close while they’re awake. Once the drugs kick in, though, the five young bears collapse into deep sleep. They’re sprawled out and snoring. Their eyes are open from the muscle relaxant.
Inside the cage, Naniot and a few helpers load each bear onto a green fabric stretcher. Moving?
Up close the bears are smaller than you might expect, no bigger than some large dogs. Each fits into a large pet carrier draped with a white sheet.
For Naniot and Larson, the release can’t come soon enough. Keeping bears is expensive. At their peak of consumption a bear can eat up to 20-dollars a day in fresh produce. Multiply that times the 10 bears Wild Instincts had last year, and the numbers start to add up.
“Bears are one of the most expensive – roughly to take a bear from start to finish is about 3-thousand dollars…we had 10 bears, so that’s 30-thousand dollars.”
That may be part of why nobody else in the state is licensed for bears. Besides the cost of food bears need a lot of space, which means a big expensive cage. Naniot and Larson’s stripped down operation is just three years old, and they say finding enough money has been a constant scramble. But besides the pressure of keeping the organization afloat, Naniot says sometimes the most difficult part of his day…is just staying awake.
“Pretty much with wildlife rehab, you feed and clean, feed and clean, you get a couple moments to come out and build on a cage, and then you go back to feeding and cleaning. It’s typically a 15, 16 hour a day, 7 day a week job during the spring, summer and early fall.”
It’s been nine years since they’ve taken a vacation. So why keep doing it?
“Basically giving the animals a second chance. A lot of these situations where the animals come in is human caused. A lot of our feeling is that since humans caused a lot of these situations, we should be the ones to fix it.
Naniot drives a trailer of bears about 20 minutes north into the American Legion state forest. Late fall is a good time to release the bears, since they’re already fattened up for their winter sleep. They won’t have to look for food. And they won’t have much time to get into trouble.
“What we try to do is get em as far away from people as possible, where there’s a water source and a food source. There’s a lot of good den sites in the area that we’re putting em.”
The bears are hauled out of their carriers and given a shot to reverse the tranquilizer. Two of the bears are already waking up. They don’t want to be touched, but are too wobbly from the muscle relaxant to react too much.
Watching the bears stagger away to freedom is a little strange and even anticlimactic. But Naniot says releases like this one are the payoff.
“It’s very exhilarating to see these animals go back into the wild, and know that you saved this animals life- from probably a certain death. And know that this animal is gonna be able to go back into the wild and give it a second chance.”
They won’t be enjoying the payoff for too long. Naniot and his crew must now turn resolutely to the next task at hand: cleaning up a mountain of bear poop.