Cinder the bear, recovered from her burns, will be set free
By Ann McCreary
Two weeks after wildfires swept through the Methow Valley last summer, an emaciated young bear limped onto a grassy area near a French Creek home, and lay down in the shade, holding her severely burned paws in the air.
After 10 months of care and rehabilitation, the bear — named Cinder by her rescuers — is expected to be released this week into the Cascade Mountains and given a second chance at life as a wild bear.
In some ways, Cinder came to represent the suffering and loss that so many creatures — humans included — experienced as a result of the devastating Carlton Complex Fire. The story of her rescue and recovery was followed by people around the world through news reports and social media.
Cinder, now 2 ½ years old, returned to Washington state Tuesday afternoon (June 2) from Idaho, where she spent the last six months at Idaho Black Bear Rehabilitation (IBBR) near Boise.
Her release was scheduled for Wednesday morning at an undisclosed location.
“We are picking the best spot to set her up for success,” said Rich Beausoleil, cougar and bear specialist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
“We want to be sure there is an adequate food supply, and we found a good spot from that perspective. And we want her to be 20 air miles from people — a good remote site.”
Wildlife officials also planned to release another young bear that has been at the rehabilitation center with Cinder. Named Kaulana by his caretakers, the 1 ½-year-old bear was found orphaned in the Chiwawa drainage in Chelan County last November.
“Cinder has kind of taken this younger bear under her wing,” Beausoleil said. Sometimes bears that are released together stay together for a while, and sometimes they go their separate ways, he said.
“If there’s a need for them to be together, they’ll be together,” he said.
Cinder was not brought back to the Methow Valley for a few reasons, Beausoleil said. “A lot of the habitat where she came from is ruined [by the fire],” he said.
Although Cinder would be released in the mountains, the current drought and resulting impacts on food may force her and other bears to move from remote higher elevations to pastures and orchards near people, which is not a good thing for humans or bears.
And since Kaulana came from Chelan County, the release site will be somewhere between the former habitats of the two bears, Beausoleil said.
Cinder’s release generated considerable interest among news media, drawing reporters from regional newspapers and broadcast media, and a crew from a Los Angeles television station. Beausoleil said witnesses to the bears’ release would be asked to keep the location secret to protect the bears from possible human interference.
Cinder and Kaulana were immobilized at IBBR Tuesday morning and examined by a veterinarian before they were loaded into a cage for transport to WDFW’s office in Wenatchee. They arrived in late afternoon and were once again immobilized.
They were fitted with GPS radio collars that transmit locations every four to six hours. The collars are designed to fall off in two to three years, Beausoleil said.
Wildlife biologists also took measurements and gave the bears ear tags and tattoos. After the examination, the bears were placed in a culvert-style bear trap for transport and placed in a locked garage behind a locked gate overnight.
“We want the bears to be fully recovered from the immobilization before being placed back in the wild,” Beausoleil said.
The bears were to be given a “hard release” Wednesday morning, he said. Plans called for chasing them briefly with Karelian bear dogs on leashes and firing cracker shells — which make a loud explosion but don’t harm the bears.
“Its about making that last contact with humans a negative one,” Beausoleil said. “If she comes across humans or dogs in the future, that memory will kick into her mind. It’s something we’ve done for over a decade and it has been successful.”
While the goal at the release is to make the bears fearful of humans, it was the compassion and concern of many people that led to Cinder’s rescue last summer when she could barely walk on paws that were raw and blistered from burns.
Steve Love spotted Cinder on the evening of July 31, 2014, when she approached his home, walking on her elbows. Love gave her fruit and water, and sat with her and talked to her when she cried in pain during the night.
The next day Jason Day, a WDFW wildlife officer, responded to a call from Love and was able to capture Cinder using a pole with a loop on the end. The bear was so badly injured she couldn’t outrun Day.
Day took Cinder to Wenatchee where Beausoleil and a local veterinarian provided first aid for her burned paws, chest, ears and muzzle. Beausoleil made arrangements to transfer Cinder to Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care Inc. (LTWC) in California for medical care, and Bill Inman, a volunteer pilot, flew the cub in his two-seater plane to Lake Tahoe on Aug. 4.
Cinder was treated at the wildlife care center for more than three months, spending several weeks with bandaged paws that required her to be immobilized each time the dressings were changed.
She was provided a custom-made ramp in her enclosure that allowed her to climb up to a loft with her bandaged paws, and she gained weight steadily on a diet of fresh trout and fruit. She weighed only 39 pounds when she arrived, about half the normal weight for a bear her age.
People from around the world watched her recovery, captured on webcams in the bear enclosures at the Lake Tahoe facility and later at the Idaho rehabilitation center. Her caretakers described her affectionately as a “cranky” bear that clearly disliked humans.
When her paws had healed enough, Cinder was transferred from Lake Tahoe to the Idaho rehabilitation facility for the winter, where she ate and hibernated in preparation for release this summer. Her time in Idaho allowed her to continue to gain weight, regrow claws that had been lost due to her injuries, and toughen the pads of her paws.
While at IBBR, Cinder socialized with Kaulana and another young bear, Koa. They played and chased each other, and Cinder and Kaulana formed a bond, said Sally Maughan, president of IBBR. Maughan said she hopes the two stay together for a while after their release.
“Cinder doesn’t need Kaulana, but Kaulana is a shy bear and we think he will benefit from being with her as a more mature bear with a strong determination to survive,” Maughan said.
Cinder is clearly ready to be free, said Maughan, who has been rehabilitating black bears for 16 years.
“She looks so longingly at the pasture beyond the enclosure and you know she is thinking she should be over there and not on this side of the chain link fence,” Maughan said.
Cinder will have to learn how to survive in the wild, Maughan said. “She’ll be facing the challenges of any bear,” she said.
“Knowing bears as I do, I can say 100 percent that given the option of freedom, be it five minutes … or five years, as opposed to a safe life in captivity, they will take freedom every time,” Maughan said.
“Cinder will always be an inspiration to me,” Maughan said. “Bears have such resilience. I’m amazed any animal could go through what she went through and recover so completely.”