Both man and beast grunted and groaned as one helped the other settle into home.

Wildlife manager Benjamin Meir hold a tranquilized bear cub steady in her sled Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, while a team from Colorado Parks and Wildlife relocated seven rehabilitated orphaned cubs to two den sites on Pikes Peak where they will hibernate for the rest of the winter. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

The walls and roof were made of branches and hay, built against the fallen tree trunk wildlife officers found in the Pikes Peak foothills. Friday afternoon, they shoved three sedated cubs inside the den for their first day back in the wild, to begin proper hibernation.

Wildlife managers Adam Gerstenberger, left, and Tim Kroening pull a tranquilized bear cub through the woods to an artificial den Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, while a team from Colorado Parks and Wildlife relocated seven rehabilitated orphaned cubs to two den sites on Pikes Peak where they will hibernate for the rest of the winter. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

“Nice and cuddly,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Tim Kroening called the confines, carrying with him some fresh hay to lay in the chilly woods.

The two sisters and brother fast asleep, Kroening stepped away from his handiwork, satisfied. “We’re just trying to get them off to a good start,” he said.

Early into their lives last summer, the triplets found themselves in trouble. They were accomplices to their mother during a garage raid in a southwest Colorado Springs neighborhood. They were caught and relocated to the mountains around Westcliffe, only to return to the same neighborhood a week later, to feast on garbage again.

Wildlife managers Adam Gerstenberger, left, and Tim Kroening move a tranquilized bear cub into an artificial den Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, while a team from Colorado Parks and Wildlife relocated seven rehabilitated orphaned cubs to two den sites on Pikes Peak where they will hibernate for the rest of the winter. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Wildlife officers’ hazing – rubber bullets, pepper spray – and another relocation failed. The cubs followed their mother 70-plus miles back to the gracious neighborhood.

“At that point, we had to make a hard decision,” said Frank McGee, area wildlife manager. “Mom was teaching those cubs to get food from people, so we did go ahead and euthanize mom.”

McGee said she was one of 27 local black bears put down in “a really horrific” 2017. Partly to blame, he said, was the dry season that preceded a sudden freeze in February, resulting in “a natural food failure” for the bears. Munchies such as berries and acorns were tough to come by.

Three bear cubs lie asleep in their new den Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, after a team from Colorado Parks and Wildlife relocated them to Pikes Peak where they will hibernate for the rest of the winter. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock).

So the animals relied on people, who were another part of the problem, McGee said. At his suggestion, Manitou Springs officials in November mandated bear-proof trash cans for residents, lest the bears started feeling comfortable enough around town to break into homes and possibly hurt someone.

Other casualties of “a really horrific” bear year were Friday’s cubs. Elsewhere on the peak, twins were relocated in the months after their mother was shot to death by a landowner in Teller County, whose livestock was being preyed upon by the bear, McGee said. The little cubs were found in a tree nearby.

They were among the nine orphans that Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s southeast region sent to the nearest rehabilitation center in Wetmore. The triplets arrived in late July to the 120-acre home of Cecelia “Cec” and Tom Sanders, the retired schoolteachers who welcome struggling big game.

The animal-loving couple licensed by CPW took in 13 cubs last summer – a big increase over the two cubs they typically have taken in each year during their more than three decades of rehabbing, Cec Sanders said.

“Let’s face it, their habitat’s disappearing,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot of places bears can actually be in the wild anymore, because we’ve taken up so much of their habitat.”

She practices tough love with the cubs. She hates seeing them in her enclosures, but that’s not the reason for her brief appearances in them. She delivers food and water, cleans and leaves quickly, so the bears can’t associate her as a caregiver. Should they get too close, she or her husband spray them with a fire extinguisher or water hose.

She prohibits people from visiting the cubs. Others ask why she doesn’t play with them. “We have too much respect for them,” she replies.

Still, she can’t help but feel attached. So it was “bittersweet” Friday morning when she waved goodbye to the cubs.

They were fat and fluffy, having come a long way since arriving at the Sanders’ weighing about 12 pounds. Their claws were noticeable. Between snores, their beady eyes partly opened to their new reality in the woods.

“I just hope they do well. I just hope they get along, stay out of trouble and be real bears,” Sanders said. “They’ve got a lot of things to deal with out there, and I just wish them the best.”

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