2 bear cubs released

June 1, 2008 7:51:43 AM PDT
After spending the past year in a Hunterdon County refuge, two orphan black bear cubs have been returned to the wild.

The bears - who grew from 10 to 15 pounds to more than 180 pounds - were under the influence of sedatives when they were released, but that didn't stop them from taking care of themselves.

"They were eating right away, so it was really fun to see," said Tracy Leaver, founder and director of the Woodlands Wildlife Refuge in Alexandria Township. "We couldn't be happier about how it all went."

It was a bittersweet moment for Leaver, 53, who said the bears' last experience with their caretakers is meant to show them to stay away from humans.

With the help of officials from the Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Fish and Wildlife, the bears were tagged and released at an undisclosed area that would have been in their home range, but far from humans, Leaver said.

At about 18 months old, this is the age the bears normally would have been out on their own. Leaver expects the bears to do fine on their own - at least if they follow in the footsteps of the other 26 bears the refuge has released since 1995. Leaver said those bears have been tracked and that researchers know they haven't caused trouble anywhere.

Woodlands, the state's only center to care for orphaned black bears, had been housing a record 10 cubs since last June, reflecting New Jersey's rebounding black bear population, once on the verge of extinction.

Over the years, the bruins have been spotted in every county, although they are concentrated in the northwestern corner of the state.

Some people have been pushing for a hunt to thin the bear' numbers. Hunts were held in 2005 and 2003, each accompanied by anti-hunting protests.

After canceling the 2006 hunt, the state began focusing on nonlethal measures to control the bear population, such as educating people about how to keep bears from coming into their neighborhood.

The three mothers of eight of the refuge's cubs were shot by wildlife officials last year after either breaking into or attempting to break into homes in the Vernon area, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.

Leaver believes the break-ins were probably due to the bears obtaining food from people in the area.

"We need to just step away from what we want to do to make ourselves feel good and do what's right for the animals, which is just leave them alone," she said.

Leaver said the refuge plans to release six more bears Friday and the last two in a couple weeks.

The refuge has spent $80,000 - all in donations - taking care of the cubs, including buying a new 5,500 square-foot enclosure for them.

"People have been wonderful about the bears and now that we're able to handle whatever comes our way, (we) need to be able to maintain it," she said, noting that the refuge also takes in other wild animals. "It doesn't end with these bears, that's for sure."