SALT LAKE CITY — The orphaned bear cubs roam the two pens. They eat, stretch, play and rest. Sometimes, they climb up and down logs or explore the large wooden crates scattered throughout the sites. 

One recent morning, the bigger cub worked its way onto the top of one of the crates. The smaller cub quickly followed, crawling inside of the crate. After waiting a few minutes, the little cub poked its head out and extended a front paw to playfully swipe at the larger bear. 

“The little bear … it reminds me of a sibling, a little sister or brother that just kind of wants to follow and do everything the bigger one does,” said Julie Young, a wildlife biologist who works with the United States Department of Agriculture-National Wildlife Research Center and teaches at Utah State University. “I think a lot of that dominance is just purely based on size, of course — it’s a lot easier to be the one in charge when you’re twice the size of the other one. But they seem to be getting along well.”

A bear cub sits in a Utah State University-based facility, where three cubs are currently being rehabilitated before being released back into the wild. | Webcam screenshot

For these two bears, the pens, located on Utah State University property, have been home for a little over a week now. A third, midsized cub joined them Saturday morning. All recently orphaned, these three bears will spend the next couple of months in these pens being rehabilitated. 

While the pens are off limits to the public — Young said her staff is trying to keep the bears wild, meaning as little human contact as possible — USU has provided a webcam that allows people to check in on the bears’ development whenever they please. 

Just don’t get too attached: They’ll be released in the fall, right before denning season. 

A live bear webcam can be a welcome distraction during a pandemic. On Friday, the National Zoo’s Mei Xiang became the oldest giant panda to give birth in the United States. So many people were watching that the livestream kept breaking down, according to The Washington Post.

“If there was ever a time that Mei Xiang needed to do us a (favor) and have a baby, it’s right now,” the zoo’s chief veterinarian Don Neiffer said, according to The Washington Post. “In the middle of a pandemic, this is a joyful moment.”

But while entertaining, Young said the webcam also gives the public the chance to learn more about bears — especially as bear encounters are on the rise in Utah right now.

In the pen

The first call came on Aug. 16.

A lone bear cub, estimated to be about 15 pounds, was found wandering a campsite in the Book Cliffs/northeastern Utah area. 

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources was unloading the bear at Young’s facility the following morning when another call came in: People had discovered a second bear, from the same region.

Roadkill nearby indicated that the cub’s mother had been killed in a vehicle collision on U.S. Highway 40.

“This isn’t the first bear that we’ve gotten because of a mother being killed crossing a road. The more we can do to be safe when we’re driving would be a huge help, both for humans and bears,” Young said. “The Book Cliffs are pretty dry this year. … I think bears are probably wandering a little bit more in search of food.”

Three recently orphaned bear cubs are being rehabilitated at a Utah State University-based facility for the next couple of months before being released back to the wild. | Webcam screenshot

On Saturday, Young’s facility welcomed a third bear — a male cub seen wandering around homes on the outskirts of Manti before ending up in a tree last Friday, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

In Utah, bear encounters are increasing for a number of reasons, including weather and messy campsites. When an orphaned cub is discovered, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources collaborates with the USDA and Utah State University to care for the bears until they are old enough to be released into the wild (cubs typically stay with their mother a year or two after emerging from the den). 

This partnership began seven or eight years ago, Young said. During this time, Young estimates her staff has rehabilitated 20 to 25 bears. 

“The good news is most cubs don’t get orphaned, or the unfortunate news might be that we’re unaware of the ones that do sometimes,” Young said, adding that a couple of summers have passed without any bear cubs being rehabilitated. 

Young and her staff have a largely hands-off approach to rehabilitating the bears. One person goes up from time to time to clean the pen and set up food — as the cubs get older and closer to being released, the staff will hide nuts and pin grapes to the ends of tree branches to encourage the bears to search for their food.

“We want to make sure that these bears behave like wild bears should behave and forage on their own. We also try to keep silent up there just so they don’t start thinking of human voices as a cue for food,” Young said, noting that the staff doesn’t talk or make phone calls around the bears. 

Inside the pens, financed by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the cubs enjoy a robust diet: produce from Ridley’s Family Markets in the nearby town of Hiram, nuts, fish, ground beef, peanut butter, oats and honey.  

And, on occasion, moon pies and Twinkies. 

“We try really hard not to give them that kind of food, but we will use it if we need to give them any medication, like to deworm them,” Young said. “But variety is really important. They can get really bored in captivity, so we try to give them a varied diet, which will also help them once they’re back in the wild because they’ll learn to try different foods and explore different options.”  

In the wild

Right now, the three cubs are still adjusting to their new home. But gradually, to improve the animals’ dexterity, Young’s staff will add in items for the bears to play with — little swings, things that spin and food-laden branches for them to tear. 

Sometime in October or November, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources will release the bears back into the wild — usually in the same area they were found, Young said. 

Upon release, GPS collars are placed on the bears. The bears are typically monitored through the second denning season. So far, Young said the data has shown that bears are not getting into human-wildlife conflict after release — either seeking out humans for food or being harvested. 

An orphaned bear recently found in Utah briefly stands up in the rehabilitation pen, located on Utah State University property. | Webcam screenshot

As she helps prepare the cubs to return to the wild, it’s hard for Young not to get attached. She likes watching the cubs’ personalities develop — research from previous bears she has rehabilitated shows that while the range of personalities may vary, individual cubs are consistent. 

“If they tested as bold on one test they tested bold on all five tests,” she said. “Whereas another bear would test shy on all those five tests.” 

She’s also currently in the process of picking out names for the bears. To reflect the current time period, Elvira and Rona are on the table. 

“It’s a good distraction right now, with coronavirus,” Young said with a laugh, adding that people frequently joke with her about their productivity going down due to watching the webcam. “I think word gets out and I’m glad people are enjoying it. And hopefully they’re learning a little bit about bears in the process.”