By Brad Quenville, director, Grizzly Rewild
In the fall of 2020, five grizzly bear cubs — Arthur, Raven, Isa, Cedar and Muwin — arrived at the Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter in Smithers, B.C., the only facility in North America that rewilds orphaned grizzly bear cubs. The bears were quickly dubbed “the Fab Five” by scientist Lana Ciarniello.
The cubs spent the next several months at the shelter, with limited human contact, before they were to be released back into the B.C. wilderness. Then the bears were tracked via GPS collars as part of the first long-term study on rewilded grizzly bears in North America (funded by the Northern Lights Wildlife Society and the Grizzly Bear Foundation). Usually, young grizzly cubs that are orphaned die in the wild, or are euthanized or put into zoos because it’s assumed they cannot survive in the wild.
My son, Nick, and I were granted permission to film these unique bears at the shelter and follow them post-release, when we could witness their second chance at a life in the wild.
Our documentary, Grizzly Rewild, was an ambitious undertaking, as rewilded grizzly yearlings had never been filmed before in North America. We hoped to be the first to see them foraging, fishing for salmon, and emerging from their winter dens.
5 smart bears with unique traits
Angelika and Peter Langen, the owners of Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter, have raised grizzlies and black bears before, but they were particularly impressed by these grizzlies’ intelligence and their distinct personalities. Once we started filming the Fab Five, we soon discovered what the Langens were talking about.
Raven caught our attention first. She was the most energetic and constantly provoked play-fights with the others. Caretaker Kim Gruijs called her the “yoga bear” because she could often be seen sitting back, grabbing her hind paws with her forepaws and excitedly rocking back and forth.
Wild grizzlies usually stay with their mothers for at least two years, but these cubs were less than a year old when their mothers died. Instead of hibernating the cubs, the Langens fed them throughout the winter so they would continue growing and getting stronger. The goal was for them to be able to defend themselves once released. By spring, the grizzly yearlings each weighed over 130 kilograms and were about the size of two-year-old wild grizzlies.
The yearlings could be incredibly rough, battling and pulling on each other’s ears, but the next minute they’d be tenderly rubbing noses. They were curious about anything that was brought into their enclosure. When Gruijs gave them branches, a coconut to play with or logs to tear apart for insects, we began to see their unique personalities emerge.
Sitting on her haunches, Raven spun a forked branch between her paws, as if she was twirling a baton. Cedar would spend hours in the pond, pawing around in the murky water in search of stones, only to toss them up in the air and watch them splash as they came back down. Her shy sibling, Muwin, could be very dexterous with her paws, and once held a thin sliver of wood between her long claws and ran it between her teeth like dental floss. Arthur, though the biggest and most dominant bear, was the most delicate eater. While the others wolfed down their meals, he’d gently spear an apple with a single claw and raise it up into his mouth.
Once, we noticed Cedar rolling a coconut between her paws, when suddenly, she stood up on her hind legs and threw it with one paw as if she was tossing a baseball. This caught the attention of the other bears and led to a sprint around the enclosure as they all chased the coconut in a game of fetch. The cubs had certainly found inventive ways to entertain themselves, but would their playful behaviours in captivity help prepare them for survival in the wild?
Rewilded grizzly bears must be released within 50 kilometres of where they were orphaned, so they were tranquilized and driven more than 1,000 kilometres to Bella Coola, B.C. From there, they were sedated again and loaded onto slings, and then taken by helicopter to a remote estuary. Transporting grizzly bears, however, is a complicated and risky process, and sadly, Muwin didn’t survive the journey. She had been in a sling with her sister Cedar; during the flight, Cedar rolled on top of Muwin and it asphyxiated her.
Following the bears’ 1st activities
Each of the four remaining bears had a GPS collar so Lana Ciarniello, the independent scientist leading the study, could track their movements. Other bear experts had told her that grizzly siblings would immediately run off in different directions once they were back in the wild, but that’s not what happened. The triplets Isa, Raven and Arthur stuck together.
What surprised me most was how often the bears regularly swam back and forth across a kilometre-wide fjord, as if it was a daily commute. I never knew grizzlies were such avid swimmers!
The bears worked together
Four months after the bears’ release, we returned with our cameras, hoping to find them.
Although the bears wore GPS tracking collars, our location data was always a day old, so there was no guarantee we’d be able to spot the trio; they can travel kilometres every day through the thick coastal rainforest. Our best chance was to stake out the estuaries and riverbanks near their last GPS recording and just hope they would wander into view.
Eventually, our patience paid off: siblings Raven and Arthur emerged from the woods on the far side of the river from us. It was fascinating to observe how they seemed to rely on one another. While Raven prowled for salmon in the river, Arthur kept a lookout, scanning around for any sign of danger. We never expected to see such teamwork between bears.
Documenting the lives of these bears became an emotional roller-coaster. We rooted for their survival and were thrilled by each chance to observe them.
After tracking down their den and setting up motion-detecting cameras, we were rewarded with the first video images of rewilded grizzly bears emerging from hibernation. However, we later discovered the limits of GPS technology when Arthur lost his collar and we had to rely on old-school tracking and binoculars to find the bears.
We finished our filming with a better understanding of the many challenges involved in rewilding grizzly cubs, and the real risks these bears face without a mother to teach or protect them. Although there’s not yet enough data to conclude whether rewilding works, from what we saw, there are good reasons to be hopeful that it could soon be more widely used to help rebuild threatened grizzly populations.
Our documentary may be finished, but the rewilding study — and the bears’ journeys — continue.
Watch Grizzly Rewild on The Nature of Things.