HELENA — The roar of chainsaws and heavy equipment filled the air of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Montana Wildlife Center Friday morning, as volunteers built new jungle gyms for the bear enclosures.
The two multi-story jungle gyms located next to Montana WILD are “bear” necessities for the grizzly and black bear cubs in FWP care, and provide crucial enrichment.
“It’s really important for bears in general that they need to have a line of sight to be able to see,” explained FWP Education Bureau Chief Laurie Wolf. “[The structures] gives them an opportunity to play and climb, and it keeps them not only physically healthy but mentally healthy.”
Located next to Montana WILD, the Wildlife Center sees orphaned bear cubs every year. The number of cubs they care for varies, with natural disasters like wildfires playing a role.
“We’ve had years where we’ve had 25 bears-- that was a really bad year-- but on average we get five to ten bears in any given year,” said Wolf.
The first bear jungle gyms were designed by Robert Peccia & Associates (RPA) nearly a decade ago. RPA donated the design and construction of the structures, and held an internal competition for the best design.
While big timber logs are sturdy, they break down from the elements and time and eventually need to be replaced.
Friday’s volunteers said they were having a blast building the unique structures.
“It’s been great,” said RPA Civil Engineer Greg Stuart. “It’s good to meet these other crews and construction companies in the area, but it’s fun to work on a project like this. Everybody wants to build a treefort and this is essentially what that is.”
Montana’s wildlife is one of the reasons many people love calling Big Sky Country home.
“It’s our outdoors that makes Montana what it is,” added Stuart.
It’s no small feat to build the towering, multi-ton timber structures and RPA didn’t pull it off alone.
Mark's Miller Post & Pole, Sierra Construction, T & E Equipment, Valley Bank, Foundation for Animals, Tom's Crane Service and Whalen Tire all donated either labor or materials to make the renovation a reality.
For the last few months, FWP has been making improvements to the enclosure. All of these improvements have helped in improving the care for the bears and increased safety for our staff and the general public.
Funds provided by the MT Outdoor Legacy Foundation help with electric fence upgrades. Foundation For Animals from the Partners for Wildlife raised money for a new backup generator. The wildlife center also has new bear den boxes thanks to the Foundation For Animals.
FWP does not release grizzly cubs brought in back into the wild, but do rehabilitate black bear cubs for release.
The Wildlife Center takes every precaution to ensure the animals aren't habituated to humans. Due to COVID, a small team of volunteers have been caring for the animals.
"It's really important that we keep them wild," explained Wolf. "Even the bear caretakers aren't interacting with th bears. They're separated off when it's feeding time. There's no talking around the bears, so that when we do release them that they don't run into any problems."
MT Outdoor Legacy Foundation and the Foundation for Animals are also working to build new bird enclosures for the education and rehab raptors at the Montana Wildlife Center.
Thus far, they have raised a little over $200,000 towards their $450,0000 goal.
The new bird enclosures will be specially tailored towards individual species, since the needs of a kestrel and a golden eagle drastically vary.
The plan is to also open the area so that visitors of Montana WILD can see the ambassador animals in their enclosures.