Q&A: The masterminds behind the first grizzly rewilding program

CBC Gem documentary “Grizzly Rewild” follows five grizzlies raised in captivity as they’re reintroduced to a world without walls

  • Apr 04, 2023
  • 1,245 words
  • 5 minutes

For a long time, orphaned grizzly bears with nowhere else to go had two options: a lifetime of confinement or death. But staff at the Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter (NLWS) in Smithers, B.C., decided to create a third option — rewilding them back into their natural habitat. 

Researchers had previously assumed that grizzly cubs raised without a mother would not be able to develop the survival instincts or bear-like tenacity needed to thrive in the wild. But NLWS, North America’s only grizzly rewilding facility, partnered with the Grizzly Bear Foundation to conduct a ground-breaking study on five orphaned bears. The goal? To see if they had what it takes to survive outside the cage. 

Documented through the lens of CBC Gem’s The Nature of Things in an episode titled “Grizzly Rewild,” bear triplets Raven, Isa, and Arthur and twins Cedar and Muwin are dressed in GPS collars and sent into the Bella Coola Valley in B.C. to brave the world on their own.

Canadian Geographic sat down with director Brad Quenville and NLWS founder Angelika Langen to find out the inspiration for this story, the future of the project, and what they hope viewers take away from the documentary. 


On what drew them to tell this story

Quenville: There was a study that came up that Angelika let me know about — this sort of first-ever study following grizzly bears once they were released back into the wild to see their survival rates. It sounded fascinating, so we decided that I would take the risk and try to make a film about it.

Langen: We really enjoyed that what we were trying to accomplish was being documented. Now there’s some really incredible footage of these bears out there in the wild, which was a first for us and super exciting to see.

Quenville: It was really important for Angelika because this study meant there was going to be some potential validation for this project. Nowhere else in North America is there anything like this. She needed proof that the project was working and the study was the most important part of that. I wanted to capture what was going on with the study and what it revealed.


On working with the bears

Quenville: In an ideal world, I would have been able to spend more time with the bears before they were released so that we got to know them a little bit better. But we did what we could. We were also naturally restricted in access because we didn’t want to interfere with their behaviour. We couldn’t film them in a way that would be ideal, so we had to be very discreet.

Langen: Grizzly bears are very intelligent, so we had to set different parameters for caring for them. It’s not like the bears are just observing; they’re also putting two and two together and figuring out that that makes four. So we have to be way more careful. We have two main caretakers for the bears and those are the only people that handle them in any positive way. They bring them food and look after them and everything else. In a young bear, that’s really important — nurturing is an important part of their development, and without that, potentially, they wouldn’t develop to their full potential. But then any other contact with humans has to be negative because we do not want them to go out there and approach the next human and say, ‘Hey, let’s be friends!’ That doesn’t work.


On their most memorable day filming

Langen: When, the triplets came out of the den after hibernation. We knew the two females were there and we hoped that Arthur was there, but we didn’t know because we hadn’t gotten that signal from his collar.  So he was either no longer wearing the collar or he had died. We didn’t know for sure. The females came out first and we were all holding our breath. Then, all of a sudden, there he was, and that was out of this world! I can’t even explain how that makes you feel.


On the heart-breaks

Langen: Losing Muwin [during transport] was heart-breaking. There was a lot of self-blame. Why did we not do this better? What mistakes did we make? We always try to embrace the failures and use them as stepping points to go forward, which we did. We purchased these barrels, we modified them [into transport cages], and what happened will never happen again. We can take this experience and forward it to anybody else taking on similar programs in the future so that something like this will never happen again. That way at least it’s not a total loss.

Quenville: We were able to film that and to show that whole process. Any time things go wrong, Angelika is quite willing to show it and say, ‘Yep, we still need to learn in this direction.’ I think that was a really positive way to approach it. Angelika and the whole team at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter were very good about allowing us to film it the way it was. That made the whole process much better and easier.


On what Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter is doing now:

Langen: Unfortunately, the bears we released last year [following the original project] didn’t go very well. We lost all five bears within a few months, which was heart-breaking. We have two females with us right now that we’re preparing to release this summer, so the program is moving forward with every release. We learn new things and we adapt the program and that’s the whole idea. This is a pilot project … There will be more losses, unfortunately. However, these bears would not have a chance at all if we didn’t take them in, and we’re hoping that with every loss we learn something.


On what surprised them

Langen: I was really surprised that the triplets all stayed together. Most of the bears that we have released in the past that were siblings, they split up after release. Most of the time when we let them go, even though they were very close when they were with us, they all went different directions. So the fact that these three stayed together through all of this, that was a big surprise.

Quenville: Immediately, they were behaving like wild bears. They were able to dig a den. They didn’t have a mother to teach them how to dig a den, so that was impressive and surprising. They could do that just naturally — pure instinct taught them how to make that den. 


On what they hope viewers take away

Quenville: I hope they see that grizzlies are more than they imagine them to be. The way they interact with their environment, they seem very inquisitive and they’re constantly trying to learn from what they’re watching. They’re observing very, very carefully — probably more so than a black bear. They will think things through before they leap to a conclusion and act. They really are incredible animals.

Langen: We’re just hoping to clean up the image that these bears get from the media — that they’re dangerous. It’s so exaggerated. And, yes, they are dangerous. There’s no question about that. But they’re also very playful, very inquisitive, very intelligent and so on and so forth, so it all depends on the situation. 

Brad Quenville. (Photo: John Marriott)
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Angelika Langen (Photo: John Marriott)
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Triplets (from left): Arthur, Isa and Raven (Photo: John Marriott)
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Raven the Yoga bear. (Photo: Nick Quenville)
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Nick (left) and Brad Quenville (right) and Dan Elliot. (Photo: John Marriott)
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Arthur at the shelter. (Photo: John Marriott)
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Arthur 13 months post release. (Photo: John Marriott)
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Raven and Arthur touch noses. (Photo: John Marriott)
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