After orphaned black bear cub seized, wildlife rehab centre pushes back

Several days after the Cochrane Ecological Institute (CEI) took in a three-month-old orphaned female bear cub covered in bitumen from up north, provincial authorities showed up without warning on the 140-acre treed property northwest of Cochrane.

The authorities seized the animal and cancelled the CEI’s annual permit to rehabilitate orphaned bear cubs indefinitely.

The CEI began rehabilitating orphaned black bears in 1985. Up until its permit was revoked, it was one of two facilities in Alberta permitted to do so. The other facility, the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation, started rehabilitating the animals in 2019.

Clio Smeeton, the president of the CEI, says she was told by fish and wildlife officers that she had violated three sections of the institute’s wildlife rehabilitation permit.

An aerial view of the bear enclosure at the Cochrane Ecological Institute. (Cochrane Ecological Institute)

But Smeeton believes they were minor errors, and claims one of the issues is baseless.

“This is immoral and wrong,” said Smeeton.

“The whole of this could have been avoided. All of it was unnecessary. You seize animals for animal welfare reasons. There were none.”

Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) confirmed in an email that the CEI breached some of the permit conditions, although it wouldn’t say which ones.

That left “Alberta Environment and Parks no choice but to remove CEI’s authorization to rehabilitate black bear cubs at their facility,” according to the email.

It also said an investigation is underway but so far no charges have been laid.

Rescue mission

On May 16, Smeeton said a hunter called from a remote area near Kearl Lake, northeast of Fort McKay, saying he’d found a small female bear cub covered in bitumen. The hunter told Smeeton he’d been watching the cub for 12 hours and its mother didn’t show up, so he called the institute for help.

Smeeton said one of her trained staff members drove up north, picked up the cub, put it in a crate and headed back. She said by the time her employee reached his home in Rocky Mountain House he’d driven 20 hours and was exhausted, so he stopped to rest.

At that point she said the hunter, who’d arrived on his own, offered to transport the cub the last leg of the trip, a few hours, to the institute.

Smeeton said as soon as the cub arrived, she placed it in her vehicle and drove it to a veterinarian recently added to her team.

She said she returned to the institute later that day with the cleaned-up, otherwise healthy bear.

Clio Smeeton is president of the Cochrane Ecological Institute. She says minor errors should not have led to the seizure of an orphaned female bear cub from the CEI. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Rules broken

Smeeton said her orphaned bear cub permit states she is supposed to notify AEP within 24 hours of the cub arriving at her facility. She said she didn’t notify AEP in that time frame — it was closer to 40 hours.

“We have a lot of stuff going on here, and I just had to say, ‘well, the bear [is] here’ and I hadn’t had a chance to sit down and do that,” said Smeeton.

Smeeton said the permit also states no one other than staff is allowed to bring a cub to the facility.

The final issue, she said, was the veterinarian she used.

The permit indicates only the veterinarian listed on the facility plan can examine a bear cub.

She said he was on her plan, but was a late addition. She said she had emailed AEP about the change but said the province told her it didn’t receive notification.

The Cochrane Ecological Institute says the province overreacted when it seized an orphaned black bear cub and pulled its annual permit to care for these types of bears. (Submitted by the Cochrane Ecological Institute)

So on June 1, more than 10 days after the cub arrived, she said officers showed up on the property unannounced, took the bear and revoked her orphaned bear cub rehabilitation permit.

The bear is now in the care of the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation.

Smeeton believes her actions didn’t warrant the provincial government’s response.

“These are not insurmountable things. They could have said, ‘Look, Clio, let’s clarify this,'” said Smeeton. 

Butting heads

In its statement to CBC News, AEP said the Cochrane Ecological Institute has “repeatedly advocated for outcomes or approaches that contradict science-based protocols.”

“This can put the safety and public at risk by not following the orphaned black bear protocols and not adhering to the conditions of their permit,” AEP said in its statement.

WATCH | An orphaned black bear explores its enclosure at the Cochrane Ecological Institute prior to its seizure:

Footage of a three-month-old orphaned female bear cub was taken at the Cochrane Ecological Institute before the animal was seized by provincial authorities. 0:11

Smeeton said she believes the province is coming down hard now because she’s repeatedly butted heads with the province over its orphaned black bear protocols written in 2018. She said she’s done so based on expert input from her advisory committee.

For example, she said orphaned bear cubs must be released into the wild on Oct. 15 of the year of their birth, unless otherwise approved by AEP.

She said in the wild, cubs overwinter with their mothers during their first year, if not longer, to ensure they are healthy and strong enough to survive on their own.

Plus, she said, it’s in the middle of the fall bear hunt.

AEP said that date, Oct. 15, was reviewed and supported by leading rehabilitation experts. And, it said, it lowers the chance of a captive raised bear coming in conflict with humans.

Huge loss

The province hasn’t said whether CEI’s permit is being revoked temporarily or permanently.

The animal director at the Calgary Wildlife Rehabilitation Society said it would be a huge loss for the rehabilitation of orphaned bear cubs if Smeeton loses the permit permanently.

Melanie Whalen said Smeeton has extensive experience in the field and works closely with experts from around the world.

“That would be devastating,” said Whalen, who designed the bear enclosure.

“They’re also doing research on rehabilitation of bears, so they’re collecting data on how well this works and all of that data is provided to other rehabbers all over the world … [to] keep growing in that field,” Whalen said.

In the meantime, the province continues to allow the institute to care for other wild animals, such as fox, moose and great horned owls.

“It makes no sense — none of this does,” said Smeeton.

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