With Help From Vital Ground Board Chair, Orphan Grizzlies Find New Home

Grizzly cub in culvert trap
Photo: Klara Varga
One of three orphaned grizzly bear cubs waits in a culvert trap before transportation to the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) rehabilitation center in Helena. With Vital Ground helping make the connection, the cubs will soon be moved to Zoo Sauvage de Saint-Felicien, in Quebec, a large facility specializing in northern species.

July 5, 2018
Contact: Kevin Rhoades, Communications Director

The Vital Ground Foundation
(406) 549-8650

MISSOULA, Mont. – Three grizzly bear cubs orphaned in Montana in June will have a new home. We can only hope they don’t mind cold winters and the sound of French.

As conservation biologists embarked on an exhaustive search to prevent the cubs from being euthanized, a message board post by Stuart Strahl, board chairman of the Missoula-based Vital Ground Foundation, led to an adoption agreement for the cubs with Zoo Sauvage de Saint-Felicien, a facility in Quebec, Canada.

The zoo features large native habitats and only houses animals indigenous to Earth’s northern boreal regions. Located in a small town more than 200 miles north of Montreal, the regionally-acclaimed zoo’s name translates as “Wild Zoo of Saint-Felicien.”

“Everybody is really excited,” said Christine Gagnon, the zoo’s director of conservation and education. “This is a good opportunity for the cubs and for us.”

A Timely Rescue

A happy ending for the cubs was hardly a given. Born in January, the bears’ mother was struck and killed by a motor vehicle on State Highway 200 east of Lincoln, Mont., on June 5. After a passing trucker reported the accident, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) specialists were able to secure the cubs over a two-night period by placing the sow in a culvert trap. The bears were then delivered to FWP’s rehabilitation center in Helena, where they would only be allowed to stay for four weeks before state regulations require them to be moved elsewhere or given a lethal injection.

A return to the wild was not an option, as the grizzlies remain too young to survive on their own and quickly learned to associate humans with food upon arriving at the rehabilitation center. That left placement in an accredited zoo as the only option for the cubs’ survival. The phone calls and emails began, and the conservation biology community responded.

The lucky keystrokes came on June 15, when Strahl—who serves as president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society in addition to his role with Vital Ground—posted the cubs’ need to a bear-themed message board on the website of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AZA).

“The first thing I did was check to see if we could house these cubs at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago,” Strahl explained. “Unfortunately, we don’t have room in our bear habitat, but I put out a bulletin to our AZA members to see if others had room. We all act as a group in that, and I’m ecstatic that we’ve found a home for the cubs.”

Two thousand miles from Montana, Gagnon read Strahl’s post and responded immediately that Zoo Sauvage could be a fit.

“Stuart answered and cc’ed all the other people involved in the rescuing of the cubs,” Gagnon explained. “I received an email over the weekend from the Montana government saying this is great news.”

Because polar bears have become a more popular zoo attraction than grizzlies in recent years, FWP had come up empty on numerous calls and emails before Gagnon’s offer. But the match was right with Zoo Sauvage: With accreditation from the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the facility met FWP’s adoption requirements, and with its two resident grizzlies nearing the end of their lives, the timing aligned. The zoo’s current grizzly pair are both in their upper twenties with their health declining due to old age.

“It will be a sad moment because they have been here for over 20 years,” Gagnon said of the old grizzlies’ eventual passing. “But the cubs will ease the difficulty of losing the old pair.”

Grizzlies at Zoo Sauvage de Saint-Felicien
Two adult grizzly bears currently live in the 96,900-square foot Nature Trail Park habitat area at Zoo Sauvage de Saint-Felicien. With the bears’ health declining due to old age, the Montana cubs will replace them in the large space once they have grown into mature adults. (Photo courtesy of Zoo Sauvage)

Moving East 

Once FWP completes the final arrangements for the cubs’ departure from Helena, they will be flown to Montreal and begin a new life north of the border. Having completed many international adoptions before, Zoo Sauvage will take things from there, Gagnon said, with a veterinarian on hand to check the bears’ health before transportation from the airport north to the 10,400-person town of Saint-Felicien.

Once they reach the zoo, the cubs will spend a month in mandatory quarantine before settling into a habitat area of 26,300 square feet, where they will spend the rest of their childhood and adolescence.

“It’s a very nice habitat with a lot of rocks and forest,” said Gagnon. “They will have a lot of space, a large habitat with no bars between the visitors and the animals.”

The bears will also spend time with a trainer who “will be thrilled to work with the cubs,” according to Gagnon. Eventually, they will move to a larger habitat space of 96,900 square feet, part of the zoo’s Nature Trail Park (see video below).

“When they are settled adults, not crazy cubs, they will go there,” explained Gagnon. “It will take a while, but at one point they will be able to enjoy that space too.”

Keeping in Touch 

Montanans who have followed the cubs’ story won’t be left in the dark once the bears reach Canada. As it turns out, Gagnon is familiar with animals who have gained public fame: Last year, the zoo adopted a mountain lion, known as Charlie, who had been kept as a pet in Ontario and escaped into the surrounding community, achieving provincial notoriety in the process.

“My God, the people over there,” Gagnon joked. “Charlie had his fan club. I sent pictures, posted videos on Facebook on a regular basis, so I suspect it will be the same with the cubs.”

If so, she looks forward to connecting with Montanans who want to follow the cubs’ story now that the young bears’ brush with fate has ended happily.

“I can say to the people of Montana that they will be welcome on our website and Facebook page,” Gagnon said. “They can send personal messages to us and I will be pleased to answer the questions and send pictures and videos, to make sure they are happy with the way it turns out.”

NOTE: This post was updated on July 6 to clarify that Zoo Sauvage has no plans to euthanize its old grizzlies in order to make room for the Montana cubs. The cubs and adults will live in separate habitat areas, but as long as the old pair lives on, visitors to the zoo will have the chance to experience five grizzlies, both young and old!

An accredited land trust and 501(c)(3) organization, Vital Ground works cooperatively with landowners, communities, and state and federal agencies to conserve some of Earth’s most magnificent and unique places for people, grizzly bears, and entire natural communities, and to prevent conflicts between bears and people. For more information, contact The Vital Ground Foundation, 20 Fort Missoula Rd., Missoula, MT 59804; also available at (406) 549-8650 and info@vitalground.org.

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