Frequently Asked Questions: Black Bear cubs 2013

The Center is caring for a record number of Black Bear cubs in 2013 -- here are some answers to some frequently asked questions.

Q: How old are the 17 cubs?

A: In Virginia, Black Bear sows typically give birth in January and early February. That means that the cubs will soon be turning into yearling bears!

Q: Why do you have so many cubs?

A: The Black Bear population is healthy and growing in Virginia – there are an estimated 17,000 Black Bears in the state. According to Department of Game and Inland Fisheries bear biologist Jaime Sajecki, there is “something called ‘cub synchrony’ where in years of poor mast, bears who have bred in the summer will not actually give birth – and then the following year, all those bears will breed again and there will be a bump in the number of cubs produced.” In Virginia, the fall of 2011 was a poor mast year – though in the fall of 2012, there was a bumper crop of acorns. Again in the fall of 2013, much of Virginia experienced a poor mast crop.

In addition, in past years, some orphaned cubs were taken to the Virginia Tech Black Bear program and fostered onto a surrogate wild sow for release in the spring. With only one sow in captivity during the 2012-2013 season, sending cubs to Blacksburg was not an option.

Finally, with an expanding human population and territory, bears are coming into more and more contact with humans. In some situations, young bear cubs may be separated and taken from their mothers by well-intentioned human “rescuers”.

Q: What do they eat?

A: Bears are omnivores; in the wild, they eat a variety of plant and animal matter, including insects, fish, carrion, leaves, berries, nuts, and fruit. Cubs will nurse from their mothers throughout the summer and fall and will begin to sample “adult” foods when they emerge from their dens in the spring. Bears, especially yearlings, will also look for “easy food” – and will raid bird feeders, unsecured trash cans, and pet food.

At the Wildlife Center, young cubs admitted in the spring receive special formula that is appropriate for bears – bear milk is very rich in fat. By early June, the cubs are weaned and the cubs begin eating an adult bear meal over the course of the summer. An adult bear meal includes a variety of foods: dog food, seeds, fruits, vegetables, leaves, insects, fish, and nuts.

Q: Won’t so much human contact cause problems later? Will they be nuisance bears?

A: Caring for nursing bear cubs long-term is a new challenge for the Wildlife Center rehabilitation team. Fortunately, the rehabilitation staff have been getting valuable advice from several other bear experts in the field. John Beecham of International Fund for Animal Welfare, Lisa Stewart of Black Bear Solar Institute, and Tracy Leaver of Woodlands Wildlife Refuge have all provided an overview of their black bear rehabilitation program – each facility has had remarkable success with the raising and release of the species.

Because bear cubs are closely bonded with their sow in the wild, the young cubs are allowed a small amount of interaction with caregivers during bottle-feeding. While the Center staff and students do not talk to or cuddle with the cubs, the cubs climb on the caregivers for a short period of time until they are weaned.

According to John Beecham, “Allowing cubs raised in captivity to socialize with other cubs may be the single most important factor in reducing the degree of their habituation. When human contact with the cubs is severely restricted after weaning, cubs will show less interest in interactions with their caretakers.” Lisa Stewart advises, “In the spring, you will notice that the cubs still accept human interaction (they enjoy being held while taking their bottles), and there is not much risk at this point (up to 5 months of age) of causing habituation as long as the interaction with humans is short during the feeding period and the comfort received after feeding is from their own kind.”

When the cubs begin receiving an adult meal, the cubs no longer directly interact with humans. Only the rehabilitation and veterinary staff are permitted to see the bears in-person, and only at feeding or cleaning times.

Q: What type of bear enclosures are at the Center?

A: The Center has three different types of enclosures which can house bears.

The Center's Bear Pen was designed for adult, injured black bears. This large concrete block structure has three large chambers that are 12’ long x 8’ wide x 10’ high. Each chamber has a den on the back, measuring 4’ long x 8’ wide x 3.5’ high with a guillotine door. The concrete block walls are sturdy enough to hold a several-hundred pound black bear, and the sliding doors between the pens and to the den area ensure human safety – the adult bears can be contained or “shifted” so that the rehabilitation staff can safely clean the enclosures during a bear’s hospitalization.

In the summer of 2013, a Large Mammal Isolation enclosure was constructed for the bear cubs. This enclosure, constructed near A3, acts as a short-term solution for housing bears. This isolation building is 40’ x 16’, with a 16’ square pen at each end of the structure. The middle section is divided in two parts: an 8’ x 8’ antechamber (acting as a double door system) and a 4’ x 8’ connector between the two bear enclosures. The connecting chamber has guillotine doors and is be used to shift bears back and forth and to consolidate bears to be anesthetized.

This facility meets the Center’s need for specialized, open-air isolation and quarantine facilities for new bears being admitted, or for current patients that need to be separated from the main bear cub population. This new enclosure would also be suitable for housing foxes or bobcats.

In 2013, the Center also began construction on the Black Bear Complex, which was completed in January 2014. This two-acre complex meets the need for long-term, outdoor enclosures for healthy young bear cubs. This complex consists of three large “yards” of about 1/2 acre each, all inside a 15-foot, double-fenced secure perimeter. While the plans pictured here show a large facility with straight-line fences, the actual individual yards have curved walls that meander slightly through the forest. This was done to preserve as many large trees as possible.

A 40’ x 300” entrance area gives staff access into secure double-door systems that enter into a transition area of each ½ acre enclosure. The perimeter fence is eight feet tall, with two 45-degree extensions containing six strands of barbless hotwire. This system will keep forest visitors (including wild bears) out of the bear enclosure. The inner enclosure fences are 10 feet tall and have suspended four-foot plastic panels on the inner walls of the fence to prevent climbing.

Each yard is an area of natural forest habitat – with trees, stumps, bushes, brush, and other native plants. These are the “classrooms” in which our cubs and yearling black bears can interact with other bears and practice the skills they’ll need in the wild.

Each enclosure contains a six by 10 foot concrete pool [which each holds about 350 gallons of water] and an automatic heated waterer. Five dens are in each yard, and were constructed out of three-foot corrugated pipe and partially buried in the ground. Most large trees located near the enclosure walls are wrapped with slippery protective plastic to ensure that the cubs cannot climb them and escape. Overhanging branches have also been taken down on unwrapped trees. 

Two towers are in the Black Bear Complex between the three bear yards. The 27-foot towers are three levels: a storage area and Polaris parking shelter at the lowest level, a station for food dispersal at the middle level, and an observation deck and camera housing at the top level.

Each bear yard will house about 10-12 bear cubs. Depending on the Center’s annual case load, this means that one or two enclosure may not be in use, which will allow previously used yards to lay fallow for a season to regenerate growth.

Q:  What exactly am I seeing on cam?

A:  The cameras in Bear Pen 1 and Bear Pen 2 are mounted on the bear pen's ceiling, looking directly down into the main chamber.

Bear Pen 1:

Bear Pen 2:

The cams in the Large Mammal Isolation Enclosure are mounted in the on the ceiling in the front outer corners.

Large Mammal 1:

Large Mammal 2:

The Bear Complex has three cameras – and the location of the cameras will change each bear season. Currently, there are two cameras on Tower #1 that cover bear yard #1 and bear yard #2.

There is one camera in the transition area of enclosure #1:

Q: When will the cubs be released?

A: After discussions with key officials at the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, we have formulated a release plan for the bear cubs. Given the age of the cubs, the hunting and bear-hound training seasons in Virginia, and considerations on the potential food sources and seasons, the team decided that the cubs will be released in mid-January. This means the cubs will actually be close to yearlings when they are released. Within a couple of weeks after bear hunting season ends [January 5], the bears will be released by several Department of Game and Inland Fisheries officials.

Q: Will it be too cold for them when they are released in January? Shouldn’t they be hibernating?

A: Black bears are not true hibernators in Virginia, however, they do go into a period of winter dormancy where they do not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate. While they do pack on the pounds in the fall to prepare for their winter denning period, according to DGIF, bears enter winter dens sometime between October and January, depending on weather and food conditions. DGIF notes, “Bears are easily aroused and may be active during warm winter days. They emerge from their dens from mid-March to early May. In Virginia, most bears den in large, hollow trees. Other den types include fallen trees, rock cavities, and brush piles in timber cut areas, open ground nests, and man-made structures (culvert pipe).”

These bear cubs should easily be able to find fallen trees, brush piles, and other quiet places for their winter denning in January. Other bear rehabilitation professionals have found that even if bears are placed in artificial dens, many prefer to find their own dens nearby and leave the artificial dens. Some younger bears are even known to simply scratch out a spot in a protected area out of the wind and let the snow cover them while they sleep. Yearling males in particular can be up and around for much of the winter in more temperate areas and will seek a den shelter only in inclement weather.

There are additional benefits to releasing cubs in the winter. At that time of year, the young bears should not expend too much energy, because they naturally will not require much [if any] food and should find a den fairly quickly because of their natural biological dormancy period. The young bears will be able to more effectively live off their fat stores [put on at the Wildlife Center in the fall] in January; the bears would be expending more calories during earlier or later release dates since they would be traveling large distances to avoid people and bigger bears, or to find food.

Another advantage to a winter release is that the young bears will have less of a chance of running into people and other bears. Young bears are sometimes killed by larger adult bears, and by mid-January, many of the other bears will have already denned for the winter.

Q: Where will the bears be released?

A: DGIF will select an appropriate bear habitat, likely in the western half of Virginia. The staff will have several months to work through those details. Because there will be so many bears to release after the 2013 season, VDGIF will likely release the young bears in smaller groups in a few different areas to give them a better chance to utilize the areas’ resources.

Q: Will they be able to survive without their mothers?

A: In the wild, Black Bear cubs typically remain with their mothers for about 17 months. Even though these bear cubs only spent a brief amount of time with their mothers [three to four months], they have already learned some important lessons from their mothers [for example, climbing trees when in danger].

There have been a good number of studies on survivorship of orphaned cubs; several different studies suggest that orphaned cubs are able to survive on their own when they are as young as five-and-a-half months old. According to John Beecham, “Leaving a cub in the wild is a viable option for many cubs if they are old enough to survive alone and have adequate fat reserves. American black bear cubs as young as five to seven months of age have survived … information from studying released bears suggests that survival rates are higher for older, larger cubs.”

According to a study by the U.S.D.A., L.L. Rogers notes, “Although black bear cubs normally remain with their mothers for 17 months … they are commonly self-sufficient at five months [by June-July, depending when they were born], and they instinctively construct dens in the fall.”

By keeping and feeding the cubs through the fall, the Wildlife Center and the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries will increase the survivorship of these orphaned cubs.

Q: Can I come and see the bears?

A: Not in person. The Wildlife Center of Virginia is a hospital for wildlife, and is not open to the public. It is in the best interest of all of our patients not to be viewed by the public. This is also an important regulation in Virginia’s state wildlife rehabilitation permit conditions.

You can see the bears on the Center’s Critter Cam network – we strongly encourage you to check in to see the bears! If you have additional questions, please submit them on the Cam’s moderated discussion. 

Q: What can I do to support the Virginia bear population while I am not watching the cubs on camera?

A: From Jaime Sajecki, the DGIF Bear Project Leader:

“Bear cubs are certainly fun to watch, and aiding rehabilitation efforts is much appreciated – but support of bears cannot end once they are off-camera and released into the wild! Every year there are hundreds of interactions between people and bears. Most people who call the VDGIF about a bear issue know very little to nothing about bears in general. This lack of knowledge is sometimes detrimental to the bears when they become too used to attractants around people’s homes. Bears can live more than 30 years in the wild and it is possible to coexist peacefully with these intelligent and magnificent animals. All it takes is for people to understand bears, their habits, their biology, and then take a few steps of prevention to keep bears from frequenting areas they should not be in. Please learn all you can about bears and spread the word. I am convinced: the more people that know about bears, the more people that will come to love and appreciate them. You can visit the VDGIF website or talk to your local biologist to learn more about bears in Virginia and how to keep them wild. Remember if you live in Virginia, you live in bear country!