At Fortess of the Bear, a new wild space for black bears

Volunteers prepare the new habitat before the bears enter. (Photos by Rachel Cassandra/KCAW)

Volunteers prepare the new habitat before the bears enter. (Photos by Rachel Cassandra/KCAW)

Three orphaned black bears in Sitka have been given a bigger home.

Last weekend, the Fortress of the Bear released Smokey, Bandit and Tuli into expanded territory. They’re no longer cubs, so they need more range to explore.

“Knowing the nature of black bears, how they can be a little more aloof, and they are real avid arboreal climbers, we’ve wanted to enclose a space that is going to really lend itself to increasing their mental welfare and giving them some great spots to hide and to forage,” Bear Manager Claire Turner said.

The new black bear habitat is a mostly-wild acre, surrounded in bear-proof metal and wire fence. There’s a creek at the back. And the space is filled with salmonberry bushes, spruce and slender alders. It has plenty of trees to climb and food to forage.

“There’s a good chance that once they get comfortable in that hillside,” Turner said. “That we won’t see them that often because it’s very dense brush and it’s going to be tricky to see them but that’s not a problem I mind having.”

Their old, smaller habitat looks like a bear playground. It has big tubes for them to hide in and with chunky logs and sticks banded together. Connected to that is the brushy wild.

“[We’re] trying to keep a number of familiar elements to the new exhibit,” Turner said. “So they have that comfort level and they have things that they still know. It shouldn’t be too scary when we move them into this new, exciting space.”

The big question for all is: will the bears enter their new space? Turner hopes so.

“They really like the space they’re in now, so will they be quick to go back to their old home or will they be hesitant?” Turner said.

The next day at the Fortress, about 150 people showed up to watch this moment. The bear handlers went into the new habitat. Volunteer Kody Knighten said they’re loading the nooks and crannies with snacks.

“So we put out the rare treats that they don’t get often was the pistachio delight, raspberry parfait and the ambrosia delight,” Knighten said. “Then we also got a bunch of salmon eggs donated not too long ago and so we put those in the freezer and made essentially salmon-egg popsicles.”

Fortress of the Bear Founder Les Kinnear entered the bear habitat. He, along with volunteers and staff, built the habitat. They worked over the winter while the bears were hibernating. Usually people don’t enter the enclosure but the bears are very used to Kinnear. Before the door even opens, the three bears stick their noses up in the air.

“Smoky, Tuli, Bandit, c’mon,” Kinnear called.

And ten minutes later, all three bears had entered their new home.

“We’re very excited about what’s happening here today,” Kinnear said, beaming. “The bears are exploring, finding the perimeter of their new territory. Bandit’s up on the trail adjacent to the fence. He’s excited, he’s nervous.”

How does he know the bear is nervous?

“Just their body language,” Kinnear said. “He’s alert. He’s up on his toes. His ears are perked forward, he’s got his head on a swivel. He’s just very excited about what’s happening. Look at him up there. That’s absolutely fabulous.”

As the bears continued to explore, Tuli even climbed a tree. After a few days, they’re digging muddy daybeds, climbing trees and taking naps. Soon the salmonberry bushes will be fruiting and the bears can enjoy the habitat’s natural treats.

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