LAC DU BONNET, Man. — Conservation officers in Manitoba are playing a waiting game at the side of a busy highway with two orphaned black bear cubs that were last seen peeking out from the bushes hoping to find their dead mother.
Traps were set near Highway 313 northwest of Winnipeg near the community of Lac du Bonnet on Saturday night after a motorist spotted the cubs beside the body of their mother earlier in the day. By Sunday afternoon the traps were still empty.
But also waiting on the highway is a woman who launched an online petition against the conservation department’s controversial decision earlier this year to release another orphaned cub, called Makoon, into the bush to fend for itself.
Judy Stearns said she’s been sitting on the highway about 130 metres away from the traps, partly because she’s worried the cubs might wander onto the busy thoroughfare, but also because she believes the orphans will be transferred and released once they’re trapped.
And she says that’s not safe.
“They’ll be calling and crying for their mother and that will attract a predator,” says Stearns, speaking by cellphone from Lac du Bonnet on Sunday.
Manitoba Conservation issued a news release Saturday night stating that efforts to remove the bears to a more appropriate area would continue.
“Generally speaking, cubs born in the spring have by now progressed to a stage of development where they are capable of foraging for food,” the release explained.
It also asked people to stay out of the area as crowds could scare the cubs and further endanger them.
Cathie Mieyette, who was returning to Winnipeg from her cottage at Lac du Bonnet on Saturday and was the first to stop at the scene, said the mother bear appeared to have been hit by a car and was lying belly-up on the shoulder of the road. She immediately pulled over and said one of the cubs was on top of the dead mother, screaming, and the other was beside it, nuzzling the lifeless body.
“We have cocker spaniels and they were the size of our cocker spaniels. They’re weren’t big at all. They were maybe about 28 pounds. I’m told by people looking at the pictures that the cubs are six months old,” said Mieyette.
“I guess because she was dead and they couldn’t move her they were in panic mode.”
Mieyette said the cubs began running back and forth on the busy highway. She and some other motorists who pulled over then tried to keep the cubs away from their mother and corralled them in a nearby marsh for their own safety.
She said there was a debate about who to call. Some people at the scene expressed reluctance at phoning the provincial Conservation Department, as memories of Makoon were still fresh in their minds.
Makoon was a five-week-old cub that construction worker Rene Dubois found starving in a ditch along a highway in March. When Dubois phoned a conservation officer, he was told the cub would be destroyed, so he took the cub home to nurse him back to health.
But after videos of the cub surfaced on the Internet, conservation officers seized the bear, and in June they announced that Makoon and another rescued cub had been flown to a remote location and released.
The province said the bears were healthy and large for their age and had plenty of food sources in the area to help them survive. Animal advocates said the cubs shouldn’t have been released until next year, when they’d be older. The Winnipeg Humane Society called the move a “death sentence” for the cubs.
Mieyette said the RCMP were called to the scene on Saturday and that someone else eventually notified wildlife officers. The mother’s body was removed and the little cubs peeked out from the woods, she said, but they couldn’t be captured. Bear traps were set and the officers left for the night.
Mieyette said no one has seen the cubs since Saturday afternoon.
“It looked at a boy and a girl because one was really tiny. And the little boy, it was like he was staying watch over his mum because he was peeking through the bushes.”
She said she has already started calling the one she believes to be the female “Mica” and the male “Coal.”
The Conservation Department said the bears may return to where the adult female was last seen.
“At this time the young bears remain in their natural habitat,” the department’s news release states.
Stearns said the mother bear shouldn’t have been removed from the scene. She said she’s researched the websites of bear rescue operations in other jurisdictions, and said it would have been much easier to capture the cubs if they had placed the body inside one of the traps.
She said no one, police nor conservation officials, were around when she was at the scene on Highway 313 on Sunday. She said she worried the cubs might stray onto the road again, looking for their mum.
“They could go back on the highway where they last saw her and cause an accident,” Stearns said.