ORR- Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary reopened for first-come, first-served bear watchers this week, a welcome event for patrons and staff alike as the popular attraction has been making adjustments on …
ORR- Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary reopened for first-come, first-served bear watchers this week, a welcome event for patrons and staff alike as the popular attraction has been making adjustments on the fly to create opportunities that comply with the state’s COVID-19 guidelines.
“It’s wonderful, but it has been very stressful,” Executive Director Steph Horner said. “We’re trying to do things as safe as we can.”
Like many other businesses and nonprofits, the American Bear Association visitor center and offices on Hwy. 53 south of Orr closed its doors to the public when ordered to do so, although merchandise sales were still available online. The association board indefinitely postponed the annual May opening of the sanctuary as they awaited a relaxing of restrictions and guidance from Gov. Tim Walz.
The organization was hopeful the sanctuary would open for visitors by mid-June, Horner said, but recent moves by the governor to relax COVID-19 restrictions allowed them to accelerate the process.
A pre-registration system was implemented that would allow 10 visitors per hour on the sanctuary’s huge observation deck, and the process worked for allowing visitors this past weekend. But with Walz giving the green light last week for larger gatherings for outdoor activities, Horner said they’ve tossed the pre-registration system aside.
“This week we found we are able to have 66 people on the deck per hour,” she said. “That will make it feel a bit more normal.”
Now visitors can drive to the sanctuary’s admissions parking lot to pick up and pay for tickets, but they should anticipate the possibility of delays in getting to the observation deck, Horner said.
“Because of social distancing on the bus, we can only take 15 people instead of 60 at a time,” she said. While they plan to run multiple buses to try to compensate, uncertainties about how many people show up at a given time will undoubtedly create bottlenecks.
“You might not get on the deck at the time you want to because of the fact that we’re at a limited capacity”
Attendance is typically lower until early July, which should ease some of the potential challenges, Horner said. She’s somewhat concerned about how they will accommodate larger crowds in July and August.
“I hope that it doesn’t stay this way,” she said. “It will get interesting if [the restrictions] stay.”
“One thing that’s really cool and exciting is that our oldest bear came back this year,” Horner said. “She’s older than all the interns. Her name is Peanut. She was the runt of her litter.”
The only way to conclusively determine a bear’s exact age is to extract and dissect a tooth, Horner said. Using old records and pictures, and noting that “she’s starting to get gray now,” Horner said they’re fairly certain Peanut is about 30 years old.
“She’s outlived all of her siblings and quite a few of her offspring,” she said.
Also unusual this year is that the sanctuary is home to two mama bears with five cubs, Horner said.
Facilitating the work of caring for the bears and connecting with visitors, Horner said she currently has 13 interns with varied levels of experience and will soon have four more.
“We have a handful of people returning and that helps immensely,” she said. “They kind of have been our anchor.”
Private photography sessions and photography classes are once again available to the public for a fee, and Horner anticipates that they also will host the popular Breakfast with the Bears event. In addition to the visitor center, a gift shop on the observation deck is available, limited to five people at a time to comply with social distancing requirements.
The wildlife sanctuary is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 4 p.m to 8 p.m. and closed Mondays. Tickets may be purchased at the booth in the admissions parking lot. In the event of inclement weather, the sanctuary will be closed. Should a storm cause visitors to be evacuated from the observation platform, the sanctuary will be closed for the rest of the day.