Though she’s only three, Winnie the grizzly bear has already seen some rough times. Her mother left her last year. And when hunger drove her into a Yellowstone campground, park service employees did their best to haze her and scare her off. Eventually she was trapped and moved miles away. But after she found her way back to the campgrounds—twice—she was carted off to a concrete den 600 miles from home.
As the newest, and wildest, member of the Bear Center at Washington State University, Winnie is struggling to adjust to a different life.
Winnie’s story started in the summer of 2006, when she was trying to put on enough fat to survive the winter. To her delight, and to the dismay of Yellowstone service employees, she discovered bacon grease in the waste hose of a camper trailer. Her fear of people wasn’t strong enough to keep her from those tasty camper calories, and she started appearing regularly in the Lake Village and Fishing Bridge developed areas.
Although she wasn’t too young to be on her own, she wasn’t an adult yet either. Having discovered food at Lake Village and a nearby campground for government workers, she wasn’t going to give it up easily. In the massive Yellowstone National Park, Winnie had chosen her home.
Joy Erlenbach, a senior majoring in wildlife biology, was volunteering at Yellowstone last summer. She spotted the young bear while walking back to her trailer from the bathroom. While she was delighted to see her first wild bear, she knew the sighting wasn’t a good thing. If Winnie persisted in coming close to humans, she would have to be destroyed. “A fed bear is a dead bear,” the park service tells thousands of tourists every summer.
This was Winnie’s second summer for campground appearances. Bear managers at the park had been hazing her away from human enclaves by firing cracker shells and rubber bullets. “They were trying to get her to learn to be a natural bear,” and use her fear to break her of her attachment to human food, says graduate student Jennifer Fortin, who spent her last two summers in Yellowstone observing bear behavior—although not Winnie’s—for her doctoral research.
“People don’t realize . . . [that] as big as they are, grizzly bears are scaredy-cats,” says Lynne Nelson, College of Veterinary Medicine, whose research involves studying hibernating bears at the Bear Center. Bears are motivated by fear and food, she says. Their nature is to run away when they come in contact with humans. But once they become habituated to humans and human food, they can become dangerous. Winnie was blamed for eight instances of property damage. For reasons of public safety, she had to go.
That’s when Charlie Robbins, director of the Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Program, accepted her into the Bear Center. In late August Winnie was caught in a culvert trap that had been baited with a quarter of an elk. Once inside the trap, she was calm, and remained so for the 12 hours it took to drive her to Pullman, says Fortin, who made the trip with her. When she arrived, she was sedated, so Robbins and his crew could take off her collar and ear tags so she could be weighed. At 146 pounds, she was seriously underweight. She might not have survived another winter in the wild.
Then she joined nine other grizzlies at the Pullman facility. “She’s like a college freshman; she doesn’t have any friends,” says Robbins. Winnie had a hard time adjusting. Though she hankered for human garbage, she was still frightened of people. And her nature made her nervous of the other bears. She trembled for several days after arriving.
Now she seems more fierce than fearful. While I interview Nelson at the Bear Center, Winnie reaches her paws through the wire grate window and announces herself with a low growl. She is just 18 inches and a gate away, and her growling intensifies.
She’s just trying to scare us because she’s scared, explains Nelson, noting that most of the other bears in the facility have a level of comfort around humans and don’t behave that way.
Winnie is struggling to adjust to life in captivity and to the other bears at the facility. When they’re not in their pens, they have a run, as well as access to a two-acre grassy meadow in which to ramble. In order to get time in the yard, Winnie will have to learn to follow commands and return to her pen when called. After first being taught to fear humans, and now required to trust and obey them, it’s no wonder the young bear is confused.
But some things are working. The bear center employees have introduced Winnie to another young female named Oakley, and they seem agreeable to one another. At her age, it’s normal to have a friend, but not to get along with everyone. “It’s like high school cliques,” says Robbins.
With a diet of commercial pellets and the occasional treats of fruit and honey, she has gained 100 pounds. Now that she’s healthy and settling in, the Bear Center crew are hopeful their newest charge will adapt and learn. Grizzlies learn faster than dogs, says Nelson. This could be because problem solving and creativity are necessary for survival in the wild. They can even learn a task by watching another bear do it. Sometimes all it takes is one try, says Nelson.
Winnie, who started hibernating in late October, will become a key member of the Bear Center, helping students and scientists better understand ursine behavior. She’ll also be put to work, participating in nutrition studies and furthering the research of students like Fortin.
“Luckily for her, she’s young,” says the student. “She’ll learn to trust us and know that it’s OK to come to people.”