SOMEWHERE NORTH OF THE 53RD PARALLEL — Four large steel boxes gleam in the hinting sun and rock occasionally as their contents shift about. The crates sit side-by-side on mossy ground facing a nearby stand of trees; a single name is scrawled on each in black permanent marker.
Vinny, Wrigley, Xena and Xaria.
This is the third and final instalment of the Free Press feature on Black Bear Rescue Manitoba. Since April, reporter Eva Wasney and photojournalist Mikaela MacKenzie have been following the story of an orphaned black bear cub named Vinny from his arrival at the Stonewall-area rehabilitation centre to his release in the backwoods of northern Manitoba in October.
This is the third and final instalment of the Free Press feature on Black Bear Rescue Manitoba. Since April, reporter Eva Wasney and photojournalist Mikaela MacKenzie have been following the story of an orphaned black bear cub named Vinny from his arrival at the Stonewall-area rehabilitation centre to his release in the backwoods of northern Manitoba in October. (Find the first instalment here and the second here.)
The rescue was founded by Judy and Roger Stearns in 2018 and is the only rehabilitation centre in the province dedicated to caring for bear cubs. The husband-and-wife duo were inspired to start a bear sanctuary after hearing the story of Makoon — a lone cub nursed back to health by a St. Malo resident in 2012 who was later apprehended and released by Manitoba Conservation.
The Stearns have built more than 30,000 square feet of indoor facilities and outdoor bear enclosures on their rural property and have gone from caring for three cubs during their first year of operation to 30 this past season. To date, Black Bear Rescue has raised and released 59 cubs back into the wild.
This three-part series marks the first time the Stearns have allowed members of the media onto their property.
It’s been raining off and on all morning and the sky is holding on to its moodiness. Even though it’s above zero, the people milling about the shoreline are clad in winter boots, snow pants and heavy jackets. Those who have been on this journey before know to overdress.
"When you come to the North and you’re in October, expect the snow and rain," Bernard Jonasson says with a hearty laugh. "I’m always dressed for it and sometimes you let the other people learn the hard way."
Jonasson is one of 11 people who, over the last 24 hours, have helped Judy and Roger Stearns, the operators of Black Bear Rescue Manitoba, return the season’s first batch of cubs to the wild. On any other day, he’s a fire manager with the province; today, he’s a location scout charged with finding an ideal habitat for the new residents. It’s an easy enough task for Jonasson, who has lived his whole life in the area.
"It’s a spot that’s big enough for those bears to travel for a long distance without encountering human beings," he says of the chosen slice of boreal forest. "I feel it’s probably one of the best spots you could let them go."
And go they do.
The location — the exact co-ordinates of which the Free Press has agreed not to disclose — is accessible only by boat. After hauling the metal crates and several hundred kilograms of bear over the gunwales and into the lakeside field, the Stearns and their helpers take a moment to catch their breath.
Vinny was the first orphaned cub received by the Stonewall-area rescue in the spring. As predicted by Judy back in April, he’s grown from less than two to nearly 70 kilos. He’s fat — a good omen for the coming winter — with a wide face and thick coat. Aside from his small stature, Vinny has lost all indications of cub-ness.
Finally, it’s time. The waning minutes of the release are spent strategizing and testing the sliding doors of the kennels. After a quick "three, two, one," the crates fly open in a clattering unison and the bears shoot into the clearing. The animals don’t know where they are or where they’re going, but instinct prevails.
Xena and Xaria — sisters who were found near Gypsumville after their mother was hit and killed by a vehicle — bolt away from the ruckus straight for the treeline. Vinny lumbers close behind, taking one last look at the crowd (likely an attempt to get his bearings, rather than a meaningful gesture) before disappearing into the thick brush.
Wrigley requires a bit more coaxing. The blond-faced bear, who, like Vinny, arrived from the Lac du Bonnet area in the spring, hesitates and turns towards the water. He’s confused by the new surroundings and the humans yell, clap and clang on the metal cages in an attempt to redirect him. A little bit of fear is a good thing.
"You want this to be a bit traumatic," says bear biologist John Beecham, who travelled from Idaho to assist with the releases. "We want them to remember this as a bad experience — anything that’s associated with people is a bad experience."
Soon, the bears are out of sight. Hopefully, never to be seen again.
"Four down, 26 to go," Judy muses as she climbs back into the boat.
The moment of release is fleeting. Getting to that point is anything but.
Final preparations for the trip north started the previous afternoon at the rescue centre, where the multipurpose room typically reserved for food prep has been turned into a makeshift clinic buzzing with activity. A pair of provincial wildlife biologists and staff from a local veterinary office are on hand to help with the tranquilizing, collaring and tagging.
There are 30 cubs at the rescue and each one needs to be weighed, measured and fitted with an ear tag and GPS tracking collar before returning to the wild. Beecham, who has been involved with Black Bear Rescue Manitoba since its inception in 2018, is holding court over the process.
The pandemic kept him away last year, but the easing of border restrictions allowed him and his wife Chris Isaacs to make the 2,000-kilometre trip from Boise, Idaho to Stonewall with their black Labrador retriever and silver Airstream trailer in tow. Beecham has released thousands of bears through his own rehabilitation program. It never gets old.
"Every one is different," he says. "And I like the people that are involved — people who are doing this kind of work are totally dedicated to it… it’s nice to be around people like that."
Beecham jokes with the vets and biologists while they prepare paperwork and measure tranquilizer doses. The drug is administered through a syringe affixed to a pole, which requires delivery from close range.
Outside, Judy hucks pumpkins over the wall of an outdoor enclosure to lure the bears out of their denhouse. Roger and a neighbour work quickly to block the door and any obvious hiding places with sheets of plywood. There are more than a dozen bears in the enclosure, all with black fur and brown snouts. Choosing the right target is the first challenge.
"Judy’s good at telling them apart," Roger says.
The team fans out and Judy points to the bears they need to catch. While some are sufficiently distracted by the pumpkins, most are keen to duck and dodge the approaching humans. It’s ideal to tranquilize a bear in a tree or a climbing structure, Beecham says, "because that way they’ll sit still."
Vinny is the biggest of the lot and the first to receive a jab. It takes a few minutes for the sedative to kick in before he’s hoisted onto a stretcher and carried inside. Laid out on a picnic table, his upper lip flutters gently with each exhale. The bear is measured from nose to tail and a sample of his wiry fur is collected for future analysis.
Wildlife biologist Daniel Dupont is something of a tracking collar specialist — though wolves are his usual area of expertise. Dupont has travelled all over the province to help the Stearns retrieve dropped collars filled with important data. At least one remote recovery mission required a helicopter.
Each collar costs $2,000 new, so it’s worth the effort to track them down in bogs and underbrush for reuse. While the radio collars are a government requirement — meant to quantify the effectiveness of the four-year-old rehabilitation program and capture data on an elusive species — the Stearns receive no government funding to comply. With 30 bears to release, Judy and Roger are spending roughly $60,000 on tracking equipment alone this season. Some of that is covered by fundraising efforts (the rescue is a registered charity), but most is coming out of their own pocket.
"I think it needs to be tighter," Dupont says while measuring the leeway between Vinny’s neck and the thick strap. He undoes and re-bolts the collar a few notches up.
The bear is 66 kilos now, but he’ll drop weight quickly during hibernation. The collars need to be snug enough to stay put until the automatic release mechanism fires in 42 or 63 weeks. Just in case, Beecham and Dupont have outfitted each with a fail-safe: a piece of cotton cloth that will disintegrate over time.
The goal is to collar at least 100 bears and collect information on things like denning habits, range, survival and conflict with other bears or humans. By the end of this year, the Stearns will have released 59 animals.
"The sample size is getting larger," Beecham says. "We’re going to meet a level where it has some scientific credibility and, at that point, I will help them publish that information."
Judy is standing in the corner of the room watching while the bears get poked and prodded. She knows all of this is necessary, but it doesn’t make the scene any easier.
"It’s not my favourite time," she says with a catch in her throat. "They’re very vulnerable looking… who likes seeing an animal getting sedated?"
This time of year is bittersweet.
"I don’t want to keep them, I’ll be so happy when they’re gone," Judy says. "It’s sad to see them go… just knowing I’ll never see Vinny and Wrigley and all these guys again and I’ve spent the whole summer, 24-7, worried about them."
It takes about two hours to get all four bears processed and tucked into their straw-filled crates. The tranquilizer is reversed and each animal gets a disc of frozen water and Saskatoon berries to tide them over for the next leg of the journey.
It’s just before 3 a.m. when the convoy assembles in the yard. Everyone is bleary-eyed and conversation is sparse while loading the crates into a pair of waiting pickup trucks. Roger leads the way down gravel roads and onto the two-lane highway that will carry us north. The Free Press tagalongs bring up the rear.
Our rental vehicle is packed with essentials: snacks, lifejackets, rubber boots, camera gear and winter clothes pulled from basement storage bins. A thermos of coffee and a hastily assembled playlist help the time pass. The drive is more than 1,000 kilometres round-trip and Roger laughs when asked where they usually stop for a rest. "We drive straight home," he says.
Save for the orange glow of tail lights, the first five hours are pitch-black — the moon is obscured by clouds that, every so often, fall to the ground in patches of rain. When the sun finally rises, it’s over a dramatically different landscape.
Cow pastures have been replaced by rocky ground and coniferous trees. The forest is stunted in wide swaths where wildfires have ripped through the landscape; golden tamaracks add a pop of warmth to the sea of green.
Other than the ones in transit, the convoy manages to avoid any wildlife encounters. The attendant at the last gas station for kilometres strikes up a conversation with Roger when he notices a nose poking out of one of the kennels.
We meet up with staff from the local Manitoba Conservation office on the side of the highway and continue down a dirt road to the boat launch. After hours of driving it’s another 40 minutes by boat to get to the release site.
"Make sure you lock your doors," quips a man in the parking lot, nodding towards a truck with missing door handles — apparently the work of a curious black bear.
Like other parts of the province, bear sightings have been ubiquitous in northern Manitoba this year.
"We have a healthy population up here," says Vicki Trim, a lead wildlife biologist with the province who has helped the Stearns release cubs once before. "Because of the weather and the terrible berry crop, we’re seeing a lot more bears coming into human areas."
While some think of the animals as pests, Trim says it’s refreshing to "work with people that care about them and care about the individual bear too, not just the population."
The crew bundles up and heaves the bear crates into the boats, one of which is Roger’s fishing vessel; this will be the first time he’s taken it out on the water all year. It’s calm on the lake, but the wind still bites at top speed. The small boat scoots around rocky islands shrouded in mist, a faint rainbow hangs in the air.
Xaria’s crate is in the middle of the boat. She’s always been a feisty customer and huffs loudly at anyone who gets too close to the container. Approaching the shore, Judy has her phone out; she’s busy documenting the final chapter of a story six months in the making.
Cubs normally stay with their mothers for two years, but, even though they’re alone, Vinny, Wrigley, Xaria and Xena have a secret weapon. Black Bear Rescue graduates are, on average, twice as large as their wild counterparts — Judy and Roger are able to help cubs gain as much as a half a kilo a day while in care — giving them a head start for their first winter.
Bears released in the fall will typically start denning within two weeks due to lack of food and dwindling daylight. While most black bears down south will dig out a burrow to sleep away the season, it’s a different story in northern Manitoba.
"You’ve got a lot of swampy areas (where) you can’t dig a den," John Beecham says. "So, they oftentimes will build a bird nest-like structure on the ground, lay down in it and let the snow cover ‘em up."
Within 14 days, all four cubs are denning successfully, according to location pings from their radio collars. Vinny is huddled up with Xaria, while Wrigley and Xena have set out on their own.
The animals will stay in their dens without eating or drinking until they emerge in the spring. Early in the year, grasses and tender plants make up the bulk of their diet and they’ll start feasting on berries, nuts and insects as they become more plentiful. They’ll only eat meat if the opportunity arises.
Natural food shortages brought on by drought are a growing concern for wildlife amid the climate crisis. For black bears, lack of food increases the likelihood of deadly run-ins with humans.
Calories aren’t the only concern. The cubs are also at risk of being killed by larger adult bears or — when they’re older — hunters.
"It’s a cruel world out there for bears and we’re sending them out into it," Judy says. "But it’s part of the game we’re playing."
In Manitoba, black bear hunting is permitted in the spring and fall. Hunters are allowed to kill one adult bear per year and it’s illegal to shoot cubs or a female with cubs. Aside from the bag limit, there is no ceiling on the number of black bear hunting licences available to purchase in a given year.
In 2021, the province allocated 2,761 foreign-resident licences to hunting outfitters — each lodge holds an allocation agreement based on its game-hunting area — and sold approximately 2,468 black bear hunting licences to residents and 89 to non-residents.
There’s an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 black bears living in Manitoba. To determine population, the province predicts how many bears might be living in a certain area based on habitat and assumed productivity. It takes a lot of guesswork because bears are hard to count.
"For ungulates, like deer, moose and elk, (aerial surveys are) able to be done in the winter… when the leaves aren’t on the trees, so they’re able to actually visually see the animals in order to do a count," Janine Wilmot, a provincial human-wildlife conflict biologist, says in an interview. "With black bears, of course, they’re denning during that time, so it’s not really an option."
Black bears are hunted for their meat and pelts and the province has become a hot spot for international big-game hunters.
"We get a lot of tourist dollars coming into Manitoba from places like the U.S. A huge number of hunters come from there," says Chris Benson, program and events co-ordinator for the Manitoba Wildlife Federation. "Manitoba is very well-known for having a very healthy bear population and a lot of big bears."
Big bears are the goal for most lodges and outfitters, which benefit from the association with large animals. Benson says that while it’s most ethical to kill a boar — an adult male bear — that’s past its prime breeding age, the final shot is ultimately up to the discretion of the individual hunter.
Since bears actively avoid humans, hunters perch in tree stands and use bait to draw the animals to them. The tactic allows hunters to observe the animals and make sure they’re not killing a sow with cubs. Bait stations are usually made of metal drums filled with attractants — oats and leftover cooking grease are popular choices and bear-hunting blogs tout the effectiveness of mixed nuts, candy and cookie dough. Though not every bear who visits a bait station will be killed, Benson says habituation to human food isn’t a concern.
"It’s a legal requirement to be a certain distance away from inhabited areas," he says. In Manitoba, bait can’t be placed within 200 metres of a road or 500 metres of a cottage or campground. "Bears are extremely intelligent, they know when someone’s coming in and leaving, but they don’t associate that (food source) necessarily with a person."
Conservation efforts in Manitoba are partially funded by the sale of hunting licences, the revenue of which supports fish and wildlife habitat enhancements, research, population surveys and enforcement. From Benson’s perspective, hunting and rehabilitation centres, such as Black Bear Rescue, are both important pieces of the conservation puzzle.
"We’re very supportive of those efforts," he says. "We all want to make sure that our grandkids or great-grandkids are going to have the opportunity to either go hunting or go fishing or go hiking and see and enjoy Manitoba wildlife."
For the rescue’s part, Judy is, unsurprisingly, not a fan of the bear hunt.
"We’re completely opposed to bear hunting, we don’t want to see bears harmed," she says, adding that the spring hunt, when mothers are leaving the den with months-old cubs, is particularly hard to stomach. "When you get all these little cubs showing up and no mother was hit by a car and… the spring hunt was on, you can kind of surmise (what happened). So, we do have a stake in it.
"They’re not supposed to do it, but they might not even know that they’ve orphaned some cubs."
The boat ride back to shore is cold and quiet. Without Xaria’s weight, her empty kennel slides around as the boat navigates through the islets. There’s not much time to meditate on the day’s events — or much need. Goodbye is the point of it all.
"Circumstance brought them to us and we just filled the gap of, hopefully, what’s a long life for them and I’m happy to do it," Roger says. "I’m happy for them — they get to be a bear."
Over the next two weeks, Judy, Roger and their team of supporters will go through the motions 26 more times, delivering cubs to equally remote locations until all their enclosures are empty. By the time release season is over, they will have put 9,000 kilometres on their truck.
While some might question the benefits of the Stearns’ Herculean efforts to give a few dozen black bear cubs a second shot at life, others see the value.
"I think it’s a good thing," Bernard Jonasson says. "There’s a lot of different opinions about that (because) right now, there’s a lot of bears. But I believe in giving them a chance."
This past summer, Jonasson saw more bears than ever before while attending wildfires.
"But that’s the way it is, we’re in their territory," he says. "They were here before us and we should learn to live with them."
As it is for the bears, winter is usually a time of much-needed rest for the Stearns. Usually.
"Our door is open year-round," Judy says. "Our policy is to never turn a bear away."
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.