A rescued polar bear cub is thriving at the Alaska Zoo but federal wildlife officials said Wednesday they briefly considered trying to reunite the wild tyke with its mother after the adult bear was spotted on sea ice of the state's northern coast.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials ultimately concluded it was unclear whether the mother bear would re-accept the small cub after walking more than 30 miles away onto sea ice.
"The odds of being able to get this cub back to the family group were really, really low," said Rosa Meehan, the USFWS marine mammals manager in Alaska.
Meehan spoke Wednesday as zoo officials gave the young female cub the chance to expand her surroundings _ a romp in an outdoor pen as reporters and photographers looked on.
The cub, now weighing 30 pounds, moved tentatively when its cage door was opened, but as an hour went by, it started to romp, climbing a sand hill and sliding down, knocking around balls and splashing in a small pool.
The cub, its sister and their mother were captured April 15 by a U.S. Geological Survey research team. The cub weighed 19 pounds. Researchers placed a radio collar on the mother and tags on the cubs' ears.
On April 26, employees of ConocoPhillips called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and said a lone polar bear cub had been spotted north of an ice road. The oil company restricted traffic along the road and was asked to watch for the sow.
The cub was monitored until 1 a.m. the next day, when coastal fog rolled in. The mother bear had not been seen. When fog lifted at noon, neither the cub nor its mother could be found.
Late April 28, the cub was finally spotted again, alone, on a ConocoPhillips drilling pad four miles south of its location along the ice road. Wildlife officials concluded the cub had no chance of surviving on its own and likely would not reunite with its mother. The cub was captured at 1 a.m. April 29. It was flown to Anchorage that night.
The ear tag confirmed the cub had been captured previously but its mother had slipped out of the radio collar. At 17 pounds, it weighed two pounds less than when it was captured April 15.
However, a day later, the USGS research crew spotted the adult female, identified by a paint mark with her other cub on sea ice roughly 30 miles from the abandoned cub. Wildlife officials immediately discussed reuniting the bears, which are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
"The goal would be to keep a family group together," Meehan said. "That's irrespective of whether they're threatened or not."
Agency officials ultimately decided no.
Without a radio collar, there was no guarantee they could find the sow again. Both the sow and the cubs were underweight when the USGS scientists captured them and had been through that stressful experience. Both bears on the ice would have had to be tranquilized again. It was not clear that the captured cub could handle the stress of being moved back north.
"The other issue at that point is, we don't know why the cub was abandoned," Meehan said. That meant the mother may not have welcomed back the cub.
The low body weight of the bears may have been a factor, she said. However, the sow probably was not out there choosing one cub over another, Meehan said. The bears were walking in a monochromatic, rough environment, moving and climbing. Arctic ice is surprisingly noisy. The cub may have simply gotten separated in bad weather or could not keep up.
Meehan said it's a hard to imagine the bear not walking the vast expanse of ice.
"And yet, if you think of the specifics of this case, the choice for this cub was perish in the wild or come into captivity," she said. ""With this life trajectory for her, this bear has the opportunity to be an ambassador for polar bears, for the Arctic, and to really be an educational symbol. That's a tremendous benefit."
The agency has not picked a final home for the bear but Meehan said a likely destination is the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky. It has all the physical and handler requirements for the bear.
"They also are going to have the next youngest polar bear at that facility as well, and so the companionship enrichment of young bears is really important," she said.