The best thing to do to help bears is to store food securely and to discourage bears from hanging around. The VDGIF video “Living with Black Bears in Virginia” (available for streaming at dgif.virginia.gov) has more tips. To report bears in distress or nuisance bears, call the new Virginia Wildlife Conflict Help Line at 855-571-9003. To support rehabilitation of injured, sick or orphaned bears, contribute to the Wildlife Center of Virginia by calling 540-942-9453 or visit wildlifecenter.org; or contribute to Virginia Tech’s Black Bear Research Center, which also works in partnership with VDGIF and is seeking further support through crowd funding at crowdrise.com/vtbbrc/fundraiser/bernardomesa.
When a small bear started visiting houses in Harris Hollow regularly this winter, some of the residents were concerned about their dogs and livestock, but mostly they worried about the bear’s survival, according to those I talked with.
Jimmie and Beth DeBergh were among those concerned about the bear. While at the DeBerghs’ in January, we saw the bear after it had taken refuge in a tree. At that time, we estimated that “Cubby,” as the couple had named it, was about 20 to 30 pounds, which would make it a yearling (born last January).
Normally, when bears have layered on enough fat in the fall, they den up for the winter. When hard mast (acorns and nuts) is plentiful, bears other than pregnant sows may reemerge periodically during the winter to feed.
When hard mast is scarce, bears innately know that it’s better to hole up early and go into torpor. This slows down their metabolism, enabling them to burn fewer calories than if they keep on looking for scarce food. However, the exact point at which bears den up can vary depending on the their age, condition and access to food — naturally occurring or otherwise — according to David Kocka, a wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) who studies bears and helps handle calls from the public about them.
This fall, the acorn crop was close to nil across Virginia; because of that, according to Jaime Sajecki, Black Bear Project Leader at VDGIF, bears were traveling further in search of food, resulting in three times as many bears being killed on roads. That could be why Cubby is alone. Bear cubs are physically equipped to find food and survive on their own by five months, Sajecki says, but they’re more likely to survive if they stay with their moms over the next winter, as they usually do.
Kocka says VDGIF research shows that every year about 25 percent of cubs don’t survive, even when they stay with their moms and food is plentiful. This year’s lack of acorns makes survival even harder. Under similar conditions, Kocka says he’s found yearlings emerging at the end of winter weighing as little as nine pounds.
The DeBerghs and Missy McCool, a neighbor across the hollow who was also concerned about Cubby, contacted VDGIF to find out what to do about the little bear. McCool, who has been seeing the yearling more often, says by the time the big snowstorm came last month, Cubby was “tiny” and “very emaciated.”
Ultimately, they reached Kocka. Having business up this way, he set up a bear trap at McCool’s last week. When I checked with McCool about the bear this weekend, she said it had found the trap but didn’t go after the bait inside. She did get a photo of the bear, though — standing on top of the trap.
According to those I’ve talked with and from what Jimmie says he learned from talking with other neighbors, Cubby has been looking for food in dog dishes, around sheds where livestock feed is stored and under rocks in fields, but no one reported seeing him actually eating. Even some cranberries left at the base of a holly in which the bear had taken refuge went untouched.
Bears are most likely to be attracted to homes by availability of bird feed, pet food and trash, according to VDGIF studies. The lack of hard mast this fall has made bears bolder and more persistent in searching around houses for food, says Sajecki, which in turn has led to more calls to VDGIF. While Sajecki advises people to lock up food and trash securely, and to actively discourage bears from hanging around, she says she also hopes people won’t be mad at the bears. They’re driven by hunger, she says, not just “being pesky.”
If caught, Cubby will be taken to the Wildlife Center of Virginia, which thanks in great part to a grant from VDGIF, now has nice new facilities for injured or sick bears, and for orphaned cubs. (See the facility and a webcam featuring the cubs at wildlifecenter.org.) According to Amanda Nicholson, who does outreach for the Center, a bumper mast crop in 2012 led to a bumper crop of cubs last spring, and a whopping 16 of them ended up there.
The Center also received an emaciated female yearling late in the year who was found lying by the side of the road, Nicholson says. The bear had several fractures, including its jawbone, which likely kept it from eating. Cubby’s apparent lack of eating could stem from a similar health issue.
Through the care they’ve received at the Center, half the cubs there were able to be released this fall, Nicholson says. The rest, along with the female yearling, should be ready for release this spring. Center staff try to minimize contact with bears in their charge, Nicholson adds, so the bears remain afraid of humans. VDGIF manages the releases, taking the rehabilitated bears to remote locations where they’re unlikely to become nuisances, says Kocka.
With bear populations having rebounded significantly because of increased conservation efforts over the last few decades, saving one lone cub might seem to be a questionable use of resources. However, as those involved with bear management whom I’ve talked to acknowledge, sometimes saving one little cub can do more to educate the public and get its support for wildlife conservation than if the resources involved were used for other purposes.
Kocka said he would retrieve the trap at McCool’s at the end of this week if Cubby hasn’t been captured by then. On Monday, McCool emailed me to say she last saw Cubby on Feb. 28. “He circled the trap, went in twice, but did not pull the bait,” she wrote, adding “trap watch continues.”
© 2014 Pam Owen