I get calls about bears year round, and they usually follow a pattern. First, I hear that the bears are out of their dens, which is news I like to hear. Next, I get calls about lonely or abandoned bear cubs. Then I get calls about yearling bears (last year’s cubs, the teenagers, if you will) getting into bird feeders, garbage cans, storage sheds, cabins and campsites. About June or so, I start to hear about sightings of adult bears that are acting bold or aggressive, associated with the bear breeding season. Finally, I hear about bears doing damage to agricultural crops. Right now, I am getting calls about cubs and about young bears at birdfeeders and garbage cans.
Bears give birth to two to five cubs in the den in late winter. They weigh about a pound, and their eyes are closed. They stay close to mom, nursing and being tended until it’s time to emerge from the den. Mom has two tasks to attend-keeping her cub alive, and finding food to keep her alive. She has lived off of her fat reserves since last fall, plus her cub have nursed off her for 3 months. She needs to find food, including crude fat, and fast.
The cub shadows mom, learning survival skills. If there is any sign of danger, mom signals the cub, sending it scurrying up the nearest large tree. Mom may head away from the cub, leaving it unattended for some time, even overnight, but she will come back. The parental bond in black bears is extremely strong. The cub will stay with the mother for 18 months before being sent off on its own. Then the female is able to breed again, bearing cubs every other year.
Once the 18 month old yearling is on its own, it likely will try to take some shortcuts, getting into trouble with birdfeeders, gardens, garbage cans, compost bins, and so on. Most of these bears learn through trial and error that they are better off eating the natural smorgasbord in the woods, but not all. In a small number of cases, USDA Wildlife Services will need to set large live traps to capture these animals and take them for a ride far into the woods to encourage natural behavior away from humans.
As for the cubs, sometimes momma bear does not come back. Maybe she is hit by a car, or dies of injury or disease, or maybe she is a first time mother and her maternal instinct are not fully developed. In the wild, a small cub that is not weaned will not live for long without its mother. In some cases, a wildlife rehabilitator can take these cubs in and put them with a surrogate mother, or tend them carefully and release them once they are able to fend for themselves.
I had a landowner call me about one such cub recently; after two days of no mother, the cub was walking around the yard bawling. A Wildlife Services trapper caught the cub and brought it to Wild Instincts Rehabilitation Center in Rhinelander. Rehabilitation director Mark Naniot said this is the third cub he has taken in this spring, the fifth for the year. The animals get a full check-up, and are fed and cared for with a minimum of human interaction to keep them as wild as possible.
Wild Instincts is currently the only facility in Wisconsin licensed to house black bears, but they take any number of injured or orphaned animals. When I went to check in on little boo-boo, they had a house finch, a bald eagle, squirrels and bunnies. If you have questions about a seemingly injured or orphaned animal, or if you want to learn more about the rehabilitation center, you can contact them at (715) 490-2727, or visit wildinstinctsrehab.com. To learn more about orphaned bear cubs, check their posts at wildinstincts.wordpress.com/.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander, and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.