Famous bear’s remains found near where she was released after recovery
By Ann McCreary
Cinder, the young black bear that was badly burned in the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire and underwent almost a year of treatment and rehabilitation before being released into the wild in 2015, is dead.
Cinder was saved through the concern and compassion of many people, and her story of recovery and release gained international attention through news reports and social media. She became a source of inspiration to Methow Valley residents as a symbol of survival and resilience after the devastating Carlton Complex wildfire.
Her remains were discovered in September, not far from where she was set free in mountains near Leavenworth. It appeared she had been shot in October of the previous year, said Rich Beausoleil, cougar and bear specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
Cinder wore a GPS radio collar so that WDFW researchers could follow her progress. “Cinder’s collar stopped transmitting in October 2017, and we figured that she was in a den,” Beausoleil said last week, when he was contacted for an update on the bear.
Last December, Beausoleil hiked to the area where he thought the bear might be denning, and placed cameras “in hopes to get picture of her — and possibly cubs,” he said. Cinder would have been about five years old and mature enough to have her first cubs last winter.
Due to heavy snow in the spring and the Cougar Creek wildfire and smoke during the summer, Beausoleil was unable to return to retrieve the cameras until September of this year.
“Unfortunately, instead of finding a den, we found Cinder’s skeletal remains. It appears that she was killed in October 2017 by a hunter, who cut the collar, rendering it inoperable, and left it at the site,” Beausoleil said.
Cinder was released into the wild in June 2015 and never roamed very far from her release site, a heavily forested area about 30 miles north of Leavenworth. Beausoleil and wildlife researchers checked on her in February of 2017 while she was in her den, a hollowed-out silver fir tree at 5,000 feet elevation. The bear was normal weight and healthy. The researchers replaced her first collar, which she wore when she was released.
When her collar stopped transmitting in October of 2017, Beausoleil hoped she was denning again. “It would’ve been neat to document her first reproduction — but it’s not all about our research,” he said. “All bears live with the risk of being killed in a hunt.”
Sally Maughan of Idaho Black Bear Rehabilitation, where Cinder spent the winter before her release, said she was sad to learn of Cinder’s death, but was grateful that Cinder had the chance to live again as a wild bear for at least a couple of years.
“She went through so much to get her freedom. Whether she had it for a day, or one year or five years, that’s what we work for,” Maughan said. “With Cinder or any other bear, once we release there’s no guarantee.”
On the evening of July 31, 2014, two weeks after the Carlton Complex wildfire swept through the Methow Valley, an emaciated young bear limped into the yard of Steve Love’s home on French Creek. The bear’s feet were so badly burned that she was crawling on her elbows and knees. She lay down in a shady, grassy area near the house, holding her burned paws in the air.
Love gave her fruit and water, and when she whimpered in pain during the night, he sat nearby and spoke softly to her, telling her she was going to be OK.
The next morning a WDFW wildlife officer, Jason Day, arrived and was able to capture the bear with a catchpole. Although the bear tried to escape, she couldn’t move fast enough. The malnourished cub, about 1 ½ years old, weighed only about 34 pounds — half what a bear that age should weigh.
Day took the bear to Beausoleil, WDFW’s bear specialist, in Wenatchee. In addition to her injured paws, the bear’s muzzle, chest and ears were also burned. After providing initial treatment for her wounds, Beausoleil arranged for Cinder — the name given to the bear by her rescuers — to be transferred to Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care (LTWC), a wildlife treatment and rehabilitation center in California.
LTWC contacted an organization called “Pilots N Paws,” which provides transportation for rescued animals. Bill Inman, a Seattle pilot, flew Cinder in his two-seater airplane to Lake Tahoe, where she began her long, painful recovery.
Despite her injuries and weakened condition, Cinder immediately established herself as a spunky and uncooperative patient.
“I remember our first encounter with her,” recalled Tom Millham, founder of LTWC. “She was in a very small pet carrier, really small for a bear.” The plan was to take the top off the carrier and immediately give Cinder an injection to immobilize her, Millham said. He was wearing gloves designed for handling raptors, reinforced with Kevlar for protection, and working with a couple of other staff members.
“We lifted the top off just enough to grab hold of her … and she turned into a Tasmanian devil,” Millham said. “I was saying hurry up, hurry up, she’s biting me!”
Cinder remained at LTWC for more than three months, spending many weeks with her paws in bandages while they slowly healed. She never stopped fighting against her human caretakers, and when it would be time to change her bandages, “we had to devise different method of occupying her attention” to sneak up on her with a jabstick to immobilize her, Millham said.
With plenty of food — she especially loved grapes — and medical attention, Cinder gained weight and her wounds healed. “It was a pleasure for us to work on her. We were happy that she recovered so well,” Millham said.
Cinder was taken to Idaho Black Bear Rehabilitation (IBBR) near Boise in the fall of 2014, after veterinarians at the Lake Tahoe facility determined she was adequately healed. At IBBR, Sally Maughan and her staff made sure that Cinder gained weight and continued to toughen up her paws and regrow claws that were lost, so that she would be ready for release the next summer.
Cinder was kept in a large enclosure with other bears, and developed an affinity for a young bear called Kaulana. She hibernated during the winter and in June of 2015 she was deemed strong enough for release back into the wild.
“Each bear has its own personality,” said Maughan, who has cared for more than 200 bears during the past 29 years. “She was a mellow, calm bear,” she said.
Cinder, who was 2 ½ years old, and Kaulana, who was about 1 ½ years old, were released together on June 3, 2015. The release site was selected for its good bear habitat, with plenty of food and water available, Beausoleil said.
Because Cinder’s story had generated such widespread interest, news media from around the region and as far away as Los Angeles covered the event.
Beausoleil and a team of wildlife officials used Karelian bear dogs, specially trained to help capture and release bears and cougars. After the bears were released from a large culvert-style cage, the dogs were allowed to briefly chase them into the forest, to reinforce a fear of people in the bears. Kaulana was shot by a hunter in October of 2015.
Sadness and acceptance
When Beausoleil and another WDFW biologist hiked in September to the area where they hoped Cinder had denned the previous winter, they found a skull, a spine and Cinder’s radio collar. “It appears to me that all the meat and hide were taken,” Beausoleil said. “I take solace in the fact that she provided food for someone’s family.”
It is legal to kill a collared animal, Beausoleil said. Among the many bears that WDFW has collared as part of ongoing research, none are protected. “We even use black collars to truly monitor their survival. We don’t want to skew survival in any way because it helps us to understand harvest rates,” he said.
“I bet the hunter didn’t even know she was collared until afterwards, as I’ve heard that many times from other hunters that killed collared bears. Since 2013, we’ve captured and collared 250 individual bears in two study areas on both slopes of the Cascade Mountains,” he said.
Washington does not have mandatory “sealing” requirement — which means hunters must bring the carcass to WDFW officials for inspection — but does have a mandatory online reporting. “But the hunter only has to tell us the sex and the game management unit it was killed in. All my contact information is on the collar, but the hunter chose not to call. I don’t know why,” Beausoleil said.
New of Cinder’s death was received with some sadness, but acceptance born out of experience, by those involved her care and recovery.
Being in the business of rehabilitating injured animals requires acknowledging that their survival is far from certain, said Millham. Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care has treated about 100 bear cubs since 2000, and it’s unusual to know the fate of the cubs once they are back in the wild, he said.
“We realize that once the animals are set free, they’re open to what’s out there, whether it’s humans or other animals. Once they’re released on their own, it’s just like they were raised by mom. All we’re giving them is a second chance at life,” Millham said.
“It’s painful. It’s very painful,” said Maughan, after learning of Cinder’s death. “When I cross over, she’ll be one of the first ones I look for,” she said.
“Cinder will always be an inspiration to me. I’m amazed any animal could go through what she went through and recover so completely.” Maughan said many supporters of IBBR have followed Cinder’s story and some make donations in her name.
Maughan said people sometimes ask her whether the bears that are rehabilitated at IBBR would be better off in a wildlife sanctuary, where they would be protected. “I’m telling you, in my 29 years of bear rehabilitation, there’s never been a bear that would be happy in a sanctuary. We see that in their behavior and restlessness. They will take freedom every time,” Maughan said.
Beausoleil, who has captured and released hundreds of bears, said his experience with Cinder was different. “Cinder did a lot for the residents of the Methow — she inspired them to rebuild and move on from the devastating Carlton Complex Fire. I’ll always remember someone saying, ‘If Cinder can do it, then we can do it.’ That inspired me too.”