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Bear Burned In Carlton Complex Fire Returns To The Wild

Courtney Flatt

It’s been nearly a year since the biggest wildfire in Washington history burned thousands of acres in the state’s north-central region. And one bear has become a symbol of the area’s recovery. Cinder the Bear suffered third degree burns in the Carlton Complex fire. Last week, she was released back into the wild.

Almost a month after the Carlton Complex ignited, a one-year-old black bear was found whimpering under the shade of a trailer in Methow, Washington. She came to be known as Cinder the Bear.

Rich Beausoleil is the bear and cougar specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He helped care for Cinder the first few days after she was found. Her paws were charred so badly that she had been crawling on her elbows and knees before rescuers found her.

Rich: “That was the worse case I’ve ever seen. You’d just go day-to-day not knowing: is she going to make it through the night? Each morning I’d wake up and that food bowl would be empty.”

From there, Cinder spent about four months in a care facility in Nevada and about six months at Idaho Black Bear Rehab.

Up to this point, Cinder’s story was not so different from the most famous bear to be rescued after a wild fire. But unlike Smokey Bear, Cinder isn’t destined to live out her life in a zoo, or as a wildfire-prevention poster bear.

Credit Courtney Flatt / Earthfix
Biologists inspect Cinder the Bear's healed wounds.

Now she’s been driven to North Central Washington to return to the wild.

But there is one more step before she can run free in the North Cascades. Biologists need to collect information from her.

To do that, they anesthetize her with a pink tranquilizer air dart.

Cinder moans and isn’t too happy about it.

The drugs quickly do their job.

Rich: “Cinder’s down.”

Once she’s out cold, two men carry her out of her cage and to a nearby clearing.

They have roughly 45 minutes until the drugs wear off.

First they inspect her healed wounds.

Rich: “Wow, she looks great.”

Next biologist Ben Maletzke fits her with a gps collar. He slides it over her neck to check the size.

Maletzke: “I’m gonna just make it one tighter.”

Then they tag and tattoo her.

Maletzke2: “I do the ear tag number on her lip so that we can identify her even if the tag falls out.”

The next morning it’s off to a forested area about 30 miles north of Leavenworth. This area is full of salmonberries and insects for the bears to eat.

For the release biologists use dogs specially bred to hunt aggressive animals to help flush bears into the forest. The Karelian Bear Dogs are trained specifically to handle bear and cougar releases.

It may sound stressful for the bears. But Beausoleil says it’s more like tough love.

Beausoleil: “We’re making this last visitation with people a negative one.”

And with that the dogs start barking at the crate.

The biologists open the camouflaged bear crate. Cinder runs free.

They fire pyrotechnics to help with the “tough love” part.

Cinder pauses and looks back before running into the woods.

Beausoleil says, to people here, Cinder is an example of the tenacity and resilience after the Carlton Complex.

Beausoleil: “We don’t know what’s going to happen from here. Anything can happen out here in the wild. It’s a tough place to make a living. But we’ve set her up for success in this spot.”

They’ll start receiving data from her radio collar about two hours after the release. They hope in a couple of years she may have cubs.

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