Wisconsin: Woman clashes with DNR over rehabilitation of bears
Dec 05, 2012 (Pioneer Press - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Tamara Larson walks a quarter-mile across her pasture every morning and every night to feed and visit with Cindy Lou.
Once a sickly, three-pound black bear cub, Cindy Lou is now a robust 200 pounds and seemingly happy. And she just recently began to walk again, following an injury that prevented her from using her hind legs.
But because of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources restrictions, Cindy Lou could be the last bear Larson will ever help at her wildlife rescue in Frederic, Wis. -- a prospect causing Larson considerable stress.
"It's been physically and emotionally horrible," Larson said of her battle with the DNR to rehabilitate bears. "There must be a lot more to the story that I don't know, because honest to God, I don't do a bad job. The animals come first for me."
The DNR says that Larson has not followed their guidelines on rehabilitation.
"DNR officials, have, on numerous occasions, discussed captive wildlife and rehabilitation issues with Ms. Larson," said agency spokesman Kevin Harter in an email. "I cannot address perceptions, but the DNR has clearly established and outlined conditions for a permit, which she has not met."
Larson has run a licensed wildlife rehabilitation center out of her home since 2006, and a few years ago decided to add bears to the long list of animals she cares for. Larson, who worked for the DNR as a part-time conservation warden for 28 years, says she did so with the DNR's blessing.
But that blessing
appears to have rescinded; following Larson's fallout with another Wisconsin wildlife rescuer, the DNR is now telling her she can't rehabilitate bears.
Larson has responded by asking people to sign a petition at local bars and restaurants, hoping it will pressure the DNR to allow her to once again rescue bears. She's also considering litigation against the agency.
"I don't want this to go to litigation -- I'd rather somebody talk to me," she said. "All I want is just to talk."
A sick little bear
Larson says the decision to keep Cindy Lou alive after the bear's injury, rather than euthanize her, sparked the dispute with the DNR.
The cub was found in Hayward, Wis., early last year. Orphaned, sick and starving, the tiny bear was taken to Lynn Seeger, Larson's wildlife rehab mentor, who nursed the cub before transferring her to Larson.
Still too sick to be with the three other cubs Larson was rehabilitating at the time, the then 3-pound Cindy Lou was placed in her own enclosure and slowly but surely began to bounce back.
But Cindy Lou had a serious setback one day in August 2011, when Larson discovered the bear had been badly injured.
"She was crying and hiding in the back of her pen," Larson said.
An x-ray showed Cindy Lou had a shattered pelvis. A fall inside the enclosure was ruled out as a cause. Larson believes someone entered the pen and intentionally hurt the bear, she said.
Who would do such a thing remains a mystery, but Larson said she believes the incident may have been connected to her pursuit of bear poachers in the area.
Larson held out hope that the pelvis would fuse back together while the bear hibernated over the winter, but the winter months were unusually warm and Cindy Lou never went into hibernation.
The injury left the bear unable to walk, forcing her to drag herself using her front two legs.
Despite the injury, Cindy Lou doesn't appear to be in any pain, Larson said. The bear even showed some progress last month and walked across her enclosure on her two hind legs for the first time since the injury.
Because of the injury, Cindy Lou can never be released into the wild -- a fact that left Larson with two choices: euthanize the bear or keep her at the wildlife rescue to help foster other bear cubs needing rehabilitation.
Larson chose to keep her alive.
"I thought if (the other bear cubs) had another bear by them they'd be less likely to imprint on a human," she said. "If you release them into the wild and they're accustomed to humans, they can cause damage to a house or person. You don't want that."
But once she let the DNR know her intention was to keep Cindy Lou, "all hell broke loose," Larson said.
said the DNR first told her she needed to find another home for Cindy Lou, but Larson couldn't find anyone willing to take the bear. She then applied for a captive wild animal license, which was ultimately approved.
Getting the license forced Larson to retire from the DNR, as agency rules prohibit wardens from having such a license.
Her bear rehabilitation sponsor at the time, Mark Naniot, who runs the Rhinelander, Wis., wildlife rescue Wild Instincts with his wife, gave Larson an evaluation that was not "favorable," according to the DNR.
"He said he didn't like my ethics because I tried to keep a bear that was injured," Larson said.
When reached by phone, Naniot declined to go into details about the situation, citing potential litigation by Larson.
"Our ethics just didn't seem to be the same," he said.
In response to Naniot's review, the DNR put a condition on Larson's wildlife rehabilitation license that states Larson must be sponsored by someone licensed to rehab bears in Wisconsin if she is to rehab them herself.
But Naniot and his wife are the only two people licensed to rehab bears in the state -- effectively giving them the final say on whether or not Larson can take in bears.
"He really knows his stuff and he's done an excellent job ... but I do think he has some sway with the DNR," said wildlife rehabilitator Lynn Seeger, of Rice Lake, Wis., referring to Naniot.
"I am concerned," added Seeger, who mentored Larson. "I do not know of anybody else who will do bear cubs, and if she doesn't do them and Mark gets full like they did last year, (the cubs) will be put down."
The DNR may euthanize orphaned cubs if Naniot's facility is full and the cubs cannot be reunited with their mothers or placed with surrogate mothers, Harter said.
"The Department of Natural Resources supports a strong wildlife rehabilitation program in Wisconsin and part of its mission is to protect and enhance wildlife," he said. "The department is also responsible to uphold regulations and licensing procedures pertaining to wildlife rehabilitation and ensure those licensed for rehabilitation are done so properly."
No one else to rehab bears
It's estimated that least 121 bears in Wisconsin have been treated at rehabilitation centers in Wisconsin since 2006, according to the DNR. Over the past decade, there have never been more than two bear rehabilitation facilities operating in the state at one time.
"Bears are such a big expense," said Seeger. "That's why there is such a need, and so many rehabbers just can't afford it. From what I know, there isn't anybody else willing to do it right now."
Larson estimates she has spent more than $7,000 on the largest of her two bear enclosures, which now sits empty. The cost of feeding bears is also high. In the case of Cindy Lou, it starts at about $100 a month, Larson said.
This summer, Larson opened a low-cost veterinary clinic in Frederic that helps supplement the rescue center's finances. But most of the rescue's funding comes from Larson herself, and having retired this summer as a deputy for the Polk County sheriff's office, she has since gone back to work at the department in order to help pay the animals' expenses.
"I need to be able to feed the wild animals, and I don't want raise prices at the clinic," she said.
Seeger said Larson is an excellent wildlife rehabilitator, and she would like to see her be able to take in bears once again.
"I don't know why they won't let her rehab bears," said Seeger. "She's done whatever the DNR has asked of her, and quickly, too."
"(Larson's) good and she has the backing of the public," she added. "So if it's a personal thing, that's sad."
Andy Rathbun can be reached at 651-228-2121. Follow him at twitter.com/andyrathbun.
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