Biologists hauled the tranquilized twin cubs by snowmobile, then tucked them into the 20 below zero snow cave. If all goes well, they will slip into hibernation, then emerge this spring and resume life on their own.
So far, 50 of 52 bears have been successfully restored to the wild in a program run by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Staffer John Fraley says if not for the program, all the orphaned cubs probably would have died. Bears become orphans when hunters illegally shoot their mothers or they are struck by vehicles.
These two cubs - a 125-pound female and a 135-pound male - are older than most foundlings. They were found on the South Fork of the Flathead River after their mother was killed in the fall of 1992, too late for that year's program. The pair was fattened up for a year along with eight other cubs at the state's animal shelter in Helena.
Although the bear cubs at the shelter come into contact with humans and are fed by them, they do not become tame, says Vince Yannone of the state's conservation education office in Helena. Yannone pioneered the program not only to save orphan cubs, he says, but also to educate people about bears. The program has been so successful that biologists are considering using it to boost bear numbers in parts of the state where bears are few and habitat is good.
It's never been tried with grizzly bears, though, since few orphaned grizzly cubs are ever found. Vince Yannone can be reached at 406/444-3088.
* Tad Brooks
Tad Brooks reports for the Hungry Horse News in Montana.