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Bear cub gets second chance after being injured in wildfire

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Photo courtesy Colorado Parks & Wildlife Tracey Sirochman (left) and Michael Sirochman with Colorado Parks and Wildlife work on a bear cub whose feet were burned in the 416 fire near Durango.

An orphaned bear cub will get a chance to return to the wild following action by firefighters and Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff in the midst of the 416 fire burning north of Durango.

A female cub which suffered severe burns to its feet in the fire is now being treated at CPW's Frisco Creek wildlife facility near Del Norte in the San Luis Valley.

"When the bear was brought in I wasn't sure if it was going to make it," said Michael Sirochman, manager of the Frisco Creek facility. "But she's responding very well to treatment and by winter we believe we'll be able to return her to the wild."

During the week of June 18 firefighters on the 416 fire noticed the young bear wandering alone through a burned area while they worked on the south end of the blaze. When after a couple of days they didn't see a mother bear nearby the firefighters called CPW. Wildlife officers responded that day, June 22, found the cub in a tree and immobilized it with a tranquilizer dart. Except for the burns on its feet the bear appeared healthy.

Matt Thorpe, area wildlife manager in Durango, then made the decision to send the bear to Frisco Creek to determine if it could be treated.

"We weren't optimistic at first," Thorpe said. "It probably hadn't eaten in a couple of days, but it had survived on its own so we wanted to give it a chance."

How the cub became separated from its mother will never be known. Sirochman speculated that as is common with most wildlife species the mother placed the cub in a safe place but was unable to get back to the spot because of the fire.

On June 23, Sirochman was treating the bear based on the advice of CPW's staff wildlife veterinarian. He started by applying a medicinal salve dressing to the bear's feet, which aids in healing the burned tissue, and then wrapping them in multiple layers of gauze and medical bandages. After every treatment the bear is injected with antibiotics to prevent infection and given a small dose of pain medication.

The dressing is changed every two days. Sirochman explained that this is a painful condition and that the cub has been spending most of her time lying down with the weight off her feet. While Frisco Creek currently has other bear cubs at the facility, the fire bear is being isolated at this time.

One concern about treating bears for injuries is that they could become habituated to humans which, in turn, can make them unfit to return to the wild. Consequently, Sirochman and his staff have set up Frisco Creek so that bears have almost no contact with humans. In the case of the injured cub, it must be anesthetized for every treatment. So it has what amounts to negative interactions with a person and when it wakes up from the anesthesia the human is gone.

"We have good luck returning young bears to the wild. We're very strict about minimizing human contact," Sirochman said.

The bear is being fed a liquid milk replacement that imitates the milk of a sow. It's also receiving solid food.

Sirochman estimated that bandaging the feet will continue for up to a month. After the feet are healed it will be placed in an enclosure with the four other cubs currently at the facility. The bears will grow and fatten up throughout the summer and fall.

While no decisions have been made about how the bears will be released, it's likely that after they begin to hibernate in late fall Colorado wildlife officers will build a den close to the area where the bears were found. Responding to the natural hibernation cycle, the bears will emerge in the spring of 2020, probably by April.

Sirochman added a note of caution, explaining that an infection or some other problem could arise that would imperil the cub. However, at this time he is very optimistic that the cub will make a complete recovery and will be returned to the wild.

CPW biologists said while some wildlife is likely injured in forest fires, research has shown that most terrestrial animals are able to flee the imminent danger. When possible, CPW responds to reports of injured animals during forest fires. Following forest fires, fish and other aquatic life that live in mountain stream are most susceptible due to the possibility of ash flows from burned hillsides.

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