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MERLIN, Ore. (AP) — As David Siddon strolls past the cougar enclosure at Wildlife Images Rehabilitation and Education Center toward the bear pens, his voice alerts Yak, and the 22-year-old, 800-pound grizzly bear trots to the gate to meet him.
At Alaska wildlife biologists' behest, Yak and her brother Kodi were flown in to Wildlife Images from Alaska in 1993 as cubs after their mother was killed by a male grizzly and the cubs rescued by bush pilots.
The plan was for Siddon's father, Wildlife Images founder David Siddon Sr., and his crew to initially bottle-feed and otherwise care for the bears until they could be returned to Alaska and released the following spring. But before that could happen, Alaska tightened its policy, banning the release of animals heavily cared for by humans. Yak and Kodi have remained at Wildlife Images ever since.
"My dad was pretty peeved they didn't take them back," says Siddon, who now runs the center. "Before that, a handshake and a good thought were good enough."
Right now no one is good enough to rehabilitate black bears in Oregon, where no rehab centers have the facilities, staff and policies in place to meet the meticulous protocols for ensuring that cubs raised in captivity don't turn into nuisance bears once released.
Wildlife Images and the seven other major rehab centers in Oregon, plus 38 smaller outfits, don't have the money and space needed to house orphaned cubs in penned areas without the bears relating people to food — the bane that often ends in the animals' deaths, authorities say.
Bears habituated to people make up the lion's share of bear-damage and public-safety complaints in Western Oregon. Captured ones are euthanized under Oregon wildlife policy because relocating habituated bears only relocates the conflict.
"Rehab's a tricky business," says Colin Gillin, state wildlife veterinarian for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which oversees animal rehab in Oregon. "Even a little bear that goes in (a rehab center) at 13 pounds comes out at over 100 pounds. If they're habituated, there's a problem.
"The really good rehabbers who do bears don't want to give you a bear back that has to be euthanized in a month," Gillin says.
The issue was raised twice recently when orphaned black bear cubs captured in Jackson County — one after running through an Ashland pharmacy on Oct. 19 and another, a 13-pound cub, after it fell out of a homeowner's tree on Jan. 6 — had to be shipped out of state for care.
The Ashland cub was sent to a Washington facility, but it was later euthanized because it was showing kidney failure. The 13-pound cub was shipped Wednesday to an Idaho center, where it will live in a large enclosure with natural denning sites and food sources until it is returned to Jackson County in the spring for release.
The process must be literally as hands-off as possible to give the bear a chance at being wild again.
"They can't see people, period," says Mark Vargas, the ODFW's Rogue District wildlife biologist. "It's best if they can't hear people, even smell them. Ideally, you need to keep human interaction to zero."
That wasn't the case in the 1970s through the '90s, when the elder Siddon took in all sorts of bears that had regular interaction and exposure to people at his Merlin center.
"Dad had a pretty casual attitude about it," Siddon says. "He had an, 'Ah, we'll get this figured out' attitude. That wasn't uncommon then. In the early days of rehab, a lot less attention went into keeping the bears as wild as they can be."
As biologists here and throughout the West began to document nuisance and human-safety conflicts with released bears, they, veterinarians and rehabbers alike began to rethink their practices.
Now, Wildlife Images applies nonhabituation tactics to all their rehabbed wildlife, especially with raptors, Siddon says.
"We've changed how things are done," he says. "You adapt as new information becomes available."
As that new information about black bear habituation led the ODFW to ratchet up its requirements, places such as Wildlife Images couldn't adapt.
"It's a pretty sizable investment," Siddon says. "It also was when the economy crashed. I was thinking more about survival. Survival will be a priority every time."
Siddon says he's considering getting back into the bear business, but it likely would take about $50,000 to build the kind of faciility ODFW now requires.
Gillin says his agency likely would have to be involved in the design, and other issues, such as regular access to veterinarians, would come into play before an Oregon facility could begin receiving orphaned bears.
"We'd like to get back into it, but we'd need an influx of money to do it," Siddon says.
Until then, it will be Kodi, Yak and four resident black bears that will hold court at Wildlife Images. These bruins have long been too ruined for release.
"In a way, I'm glad Kodi and Yak didn't go back to Alaska," Siddon says. "I like having grizzlies."
Information from: KOBI-TV, http://www.localnewscomesfirst.com/
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