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Orphaned cubs get placed with foster bears

Dana Hedgpeth

THE WASHINGTON POST – Try walking into the den of a roughly 200-pound mother black bear while she’s watching and creep close enough to place an orphaned cub next to her.

Then, back away slowly and hope she’ll take it in as one of her own.


That’s what a team of wildlife biologists with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) is doing as part of a project near Farmville in central Virginia, as they try to accomplish two goals: place orphaned bear cubs with foster bears, and learn more about the species’ habits and lifestyle.

The black bear population in Virginia has made a comeback, experts said. Instead of being found mainly in the mountainous and southeastern parts of the state near the Great Dismal Swamp, in the last two decades more black bears have been found in the central part of the state.

“There’s still a very healthy population of bears in the mountains but they’re running out of room,” said bear biologist for DWR Katie Martin. “So when moms kick those yearlings out, they have to go find their own territory.”

A female bear cradles one of her young cubs in the spring forest in Virginia. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Experts place a collar on a sedated female bear in Virginia

In Virginia, black bears almost went extinct in the early 1900s as they were overhunted, but after limits were imposed on the number that can be harvested, their population has rebounded, Martin said. There are about 18,000 to 20,000 black bears in Virginia.

Martin and her group started a program to learn more about bears and their habits, while also considering if they would be good candidates as foster moms.

They use a collar outfitted with a GPS system to track the bears and learn about their eating habits, movement and reproduction. The collars are typically placed on bears in the summer, which helps biologists find them in the winter when they need to place orphaned cubs – otherwise trying to find a wild bear is like “trying to find a needle in a haystack,” Martin said.

Outfitting a bear with a collar is no easy task.

Wildlife officials set up a “trap” made from large, culvert pipes, then outfitted with doors on each end. They put soft bedding inside, then bait the trap with sunflower seeds covered in molasses or a bit of vanilla.

And they wait.

Once the bear is lured in, the doors go down and she’s caught. They immobilize her with a sedative by using a syringe attached to the end of a pole. Once the bear is asleep, experts take her out of the trap, check her weight and age, then outfit her with the battery-run collar.

Martin said if her cubs are nearby, they usually go up a tree and watch as humans work on their mother. The process takes about 30 minutes.

They then give the bear a “reversal agent” that wakes her before backing away. The mother bear, Martin said, “feels like she’s taking a little nap,” and when she wakes up “she can’t remember anything.”

The batteries in the collar last about two years, at which point the collar falls off. Martin’s team tracks the collar and refurbishes it to use again.

They use wildlife cameras and data collected from the collar to determine if the mom should foster a new cub. “We’re looking to see if she’s in good shape, nice and fat, and we’re watching to see if she can handle another cub,” Martin said.

Experts will track the mother bears that have been collared and place a new cub with her, carefully approaching when she’s in a den with her other cubs.

To put the new cub in the den, Martin said she and her team often wait for a rainy, cold day. She rubs Vaseline on the cub’s head to get rid of any human scent, wraps it in a blanket, tucks it in the bib pocket of her overalls, then quietly places the cub near the den.

“Once that cold air hits the cub, it starts crying and the mother bear’s instinct is ‘There’s a cub crying, I need to take care of it,’” Martin said. “She will reach out, pull it into the den and we back out and leave them alone.”

Since Martin and her team started their work, they’ve put collars on nearly 40 bears in five years. They have placed close to 20 cubs with foster mama bears.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, she said, there’s been a rise in the number of cubs brought in by humans. Martin said bears typically run off if they hear a dog barking as a protective mechanism for their cubs. The mama bear’s “thinking, ‘I’ll make the intruder follow me and I’ll come back later to get my cubs,’” Martin said. “She’s trying to use herself as a distraction to protect her cubs.”

But humans intervene, Martin said, and people find the cubs and think “they’re crying and they’re cute and alone so they’ll pick them up.” Martin said that’s the “worst thing to do.”

“The female bear is going to come back,” Martin said. “They’re wonderful moms and they’re best defence is to make you follow her and run away.”

Martin said her group works to return cubs to foster moms in the wild because that’s the best place for them to “learn how to be a bear.”

“A mother bear knows where the best blackberries and blueberries are,” Martin said. “In the fall, she’s teaching them where the best acorns are. She teaches them how to dig a den, how to avoid people, where to go so they’re not disturbed, how to climb trees.”

This winter, Martin said, she’s not placed any orphaned cubs in dens – which to her is a victory that the cubs were left alone by humans. She recently checked on a cub she placed last winter with a female bear they named Harrison.

“The cubs looked good and healthy,” she said. “That was a true success.”