COCHRANE, Alta. — A wildlife biologist says a young injured black bear that has been wandering alone west of Calgary for weeks has not built up enough body fat or grown a thick enough fur undercoat to survive the winter without help.
The small bruin was spotted hobbling in a field in late September with an apparent injury to one of its back legs. That prompted calls for the Alberta government to allow a wildlife rehabilitation charity to intervene.
The province has said the animal should be left alone and has suggested it could heal while it hibernates. Anyone who approaches the bear risks being charged and fined.
More than 6,700 people have signed an online petition urging the government to allow the bear to be treated.
Biologist Lisa Dahlseide says the bear was seen as recently as Sunday, when it attracted a crowd of onlookers near the small community of Redwood Meadows.
She says the animal has been able to move over greater distances than it had been several weeks ago, when it stayed mostly in the same spot.
"It's great news because it shows that he's healing," Dahlseide said Monday.
"However, I feel that it was a bit too late in the game for this time of year. He had such a long period of time when he wasn't mobile, where he lacked getting the nutritional content that he needed to prepare for hibernation."
Alberta Environment and Parks did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bears need to consume 20,000 calories a day in preparation for their winter slumber, Dahlseide said.
"He's very skinny. He's still very much underweight."
The Cochrane Ecological Institute, which has been rehabilitating and rescuing wildlife for a half-century, has for weeks wanted the bear to be brought to its facility for care.
But provincial rules in place since 2010 prohibit the rescue, rehabilitation and return to the wild of a number of animals, including black bears.
Institute president Clio Smeeton said she wrote to the province last month to ask for a temporary shelter permit, which would allow her organization to look after the bear for a limited period of time. She also asked to borrow a bear trap.
Smeeton said the bear would be given veterinary treatment at no cost to taxpayers. The bear would be fattened up as much as possible for the next few weeks and would be given a safe place to hibernate until spring.
"We have been collecting vast amounts of apples, all donated for him, should we ever get him."
Smeeton said she doesn't understand why the province hasn't taken her up on the offer.
"It's not difficult. It's clean, it's ethical and it's morally right to do," she said. "It won't cost the government a penny and by doing something like that, they look good, the animals are looked after and everybody's happy."
Dahlseide said Smeeton's proposal is the best option, but the biologist has been exploring an alternative.
Dahlseide said a den insulated with straw bales could be built for the bear on the private property it has been roaming on, since it's not clear whether the animal has the strength to build one itself. She said the landowner has expressed an eagerness to help, but wants to ensure doing so doesn't cause any legal trouble.
The downside would be that the bruin would be more vulnerable to predators than if it were at the wildlife institute — but it's better than nothing, Dahlseide said.
"We have built the den, so as soon as we get the OK, it's just a matter of putting it on the back of a pickup truck."
— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary