GARRISON, Minn. — Two orphaned bear cubs rescued from a cornfield Sunday, March 15, in Marshall County will spend the next year or so at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Garrison, Minn., after their mother was hit by a combine harvesting corn over the weekend near Strandquist, Minn.

The rehabilitator, “Wild and Free,” aims to ensure “that every animal has the chance to return back to freedom in the wild,” if possible, the nonprofit’s website states.

According to Jeremy Woinarowicz, conservation officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Thief River Falls, the sow had made a den in a cornfield, which was left standing after heavy rains last fall prevented the crop from being harvested. Strandquist is 60 miles northeast of Grand Forks.

The combine hit the bear Saturday afternoon, and the sow ran off, leading the farmer to assume it was OK, Woinarowicz said.

“Everybody is trying to get their corn off now when the ground is still frozen,” Woinarowicz said.

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“More than likely, it sustained some type of internal injuries, but it went back to exactly where it had been denning in the cornfield.”

Sunday, the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department got a call about the injured bear. When a deputy arrived, the bear couldn’t stand up and could barely move its head, Woinarowicz said.

“He assumed it was injured to the point it wasn’t going to be able to be mobile, and so he made the decision” to shoot the bear, Woinarowicz said.

That’s when the deputy noticed the two cubs and contacted Woinarowicz and DNR conservation officer Tony Elwell, also of Thief River Falls. The cubs, a male and a female, each weighed about 6 pounds and were in good shape, Woinarowicz said.

“They’re cute — about the size of little piglets,” he said. “Just like a live teddy bear but with extremely sharp little claws.”

The carcass of the dead sow was left onsite, but the conservation officers took the two cubs to the DNR’s area wildlife office in Thief River Falls, where Doug Franke, area wildlife manager, made arrangements to rendezvous in Hackensack, Minn., with staff from Wild and Free.

Franke delivered the cubs Sunday afternoon to a Wild and Free volunteer, who then took the cubs to the facility in Garrison. It’s the only facility in Minnesota licensed to rehabilitate bear cubs, Franke said.

“They’ve done this many years. They have a way of rehabilitating the animals with minimal human contact,” Franke said. “The goal is to always minimize their habituation to humans and then they’re overwintered.”

The bears will be released back into the wild late next winter or early next spring in an undisclosed location, Franke said.

“There’s really no other good way to do it,” he said. “Releasing bears during the (summer or fall) is always problematic because adult males or any adult bear trying to assimilate into a new area, it can be difficult for that animal to find food and integrate into another bear population without having problems.

“They’ve found that late-winter release is much more effective for the animal.”

As farmers with standing corn scramble this spring to harvest their crops, DNR staff are urging them to be on the lookout for bears that might still be hibernating among the rows. There have been multiple reports of farmers combining corn and encountering hibernating bears.

“This is the third one I’ve heard of this year,” Woinarowicz said. “I’ve talked to other farmers in the area that are harvesting their corn, and all of a sudden a bear will bust out of the corn right in front of their header.”

If weather and ground conditions permit, waiting until the end of March to harvest standing corn would give hibernating bears, especially those with cubs, a better opportunity to leave the den sites without being disturbed, Franke said.

“The later you can go, the better off we are,” he said.