Early this month, game wardens with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks were alerted about a grizzly shot dead in the Blackfoot Valley northeast of Ovando. The bear was a female, and in responding to the call, wardens reported she had three cubs.
FWP bear specialist Jamie Jonkel woke early the following morning, Nov. 4, and drove up to the site. Sure enough, there were two cubs in a tree near the mother. They looked a little on the small side, Jonkel says, not like big, healthy fall cubs that might survive on their own. So the siblings were darted and contained in a trap. The third cub, however, kept its distance.
"He was at the site when we were first there, but wouldn't come anywhere near us and wouldn't go into a tree," Jonkel recalls.
Attempts to round up the cub failed, forcing Jonkel to stay the night. He and three others spent the better part of the next day trying to tree the orphan with hounds. Again unsuccessful, they resumed the attempt Nov. 6.
"He took these dogs on just a heck of a chase," Jonkel says. "They had him treed a couple times, but whenever we reached the tree, he would jump free. He ended up taking us way up on top of this mountain, well beyond any place where we could possibly drug him and carry him back."
Orphaned cubs have become an annual issue in Montana. Female bears can be hit by cars, shot by poachers, even killed by bigger male grizzlies. FWP has dealt with quite a few orphans who made it on their own, Jonkel says. "But we've sure had a lot more that didn't. Without Mom, it's tough."
The two cubs FWP did catch were eventually relocated to the Bronx Zoo, and the agency is offering a $4,000 reward for information on the poacher responsible for killing their mother. Meanwhile, Jonkel put the word out to hunters, recreationists and local residents to keep their eyes open for the third cub. He faces some tough challenges, Jonkel says, such as mountain lions, coyotes and older male grizzlies. Still, the incident raises the question of whether it's better to be in a zoo or have a fighting chance.
"He'll have to be pretty savvy, but he seemed extremely savvy," Jonkel says. "I was impressed with what this little fella did."