The Wildlife Commission Explains Black Bear Rehabilitation

The Wildlife Commission Explains Black Bear Rehabilitation

Author: NCWRC blogger/Tuesday, June 13, 2023/Categories: Blog, Conservation, Regulations, Wildlife Management

On Saturday, June 10, 2023, the North Carolina Wildlife Commission (Commission) was contacted regarding a black bear suffering from injuries due to a collision with a motor vehicle on I-240 East near Montford Avenue in Asheville. The most humane option given the extent of injuries it sustained was to euthanize the bear.

In the case of vehicle collision or other situations where a bear is injured, Commission staff will investigate and exercise one of the following options:

  1. If injuries are minor and bear can leave the scene, bear will be left undisturbed and allowed to leave on its own.  
  2. Bears suffering from injuries that obviously will lead to death or an inability to function normally in the wild (e.g., broken leg significantly limiting mobility, severe bleeding, unconsciousness, severe head trauma, bleeding from mouth or nose, etc.) will be humanely euthanized.   
  3. Commission personnel or designated representatives (e.g., local law enforcement) may also humanely euthanize bears if public safety is a concern due to injury of the bear. 
  4. If a cub (defined as a bear 12 months old or younger) is injured, Commission personnel may capture it for rehabilitation or humanely euthanize the cub based on the extent of the injuries.   

The Commission encourages the public to report injured and/or vehicle-struck bear by calling the N.C. Wildlife Helpline at 866-318-2401 or hwi@ncwildlife.org.

Black Bear Rehabilitation 

The capture and attempted rehabilitation of subadult (defined as a bear 24-36 months old) or adult black bears is not something any state wildlife agency in the United States does outside of very special circumstances. This is for several reasons:

  • Black bear populations in the United States are thriving and the rehabilitation of subadult and adult black bears is not needed to restore or supplement black bear populations. 
  • Wild-born subadult and adult bears do not readily adapt to captivity:
    • Black bears have large ranges of 5-60+ square miles and can be active for 18 hours a day, spending that time foraging and exploring their surroundings. Even the most spacious captive enclosure would be a fraction of the size a bear is used to roaming. Bears in captivity require mentally challenging and physically stimulating environments, which still would not compare to what they encounter in the wild. 
    • Captive bears show signs of stress, often by not eating, pacing, swaying repetitively, and mutilating themselves. 
    • Injuries heal much more slowly than would occur in the wild due to the stress of captivity, as well as the stress introduced by the caretakers through repeated handling to care for the injury. 
    • Due to the stress and relatively small size of any rehabilitation facility compared to a natural home range, these wild-born subadult and adult bears will make repeated attempts to escape and will either get injured in the process or will be successful. 
    • Wild-born subadult and adult bears are solitary by nature, except during breeding season. Bears can be territorial, including both female and male bears. As such, placing wild-born bears in a captive environment together, coupled with the additional stress of captivity, would likely result in injury or death of a bear due to fighting. 
  • Injured subadult or adult bears put in captivity for rehabilitation may become habituated and dependent on people for survivorship, and upon release may cause human-bear conflicts and potentially injure people.  

Requests for a Black Bear Rehabilitation Facility

  • Despite public claims to the contrary, the Commission has not received a license application to rehabilitate adult black bears in Western North Carolina. 

Rehabilitation of Black Bear Cubs

  • Rehabilitating black bear cubs (<12 months old) for eventual release in the wild is a common practice among state wildlife agencies, including in North Carolina.
  • The Commission has licensed two wildlife rehabilitators to rehabilitate bear cubs, based on their experience, facility, and demonstrated success in rehabilitating challenging wildlife species. 
  • Cub rehabilitation is possible because: 
    • They are of an age in which they have great behavioral plasticity/adaptability to cope with temporary or permanent captivity. 
    • Their behavior also makes them vulnerable to becoming habituated and dependent on people if great care is not taken during the rehabilitation process, such as minimizing contact between cubs and caretakers, caretakers disguising themselves (e.g., ghillie suits, minimal talking), as well as allowing cubs to socialize with other orphaned cubs. 
    • Their tolerance for being with other captive bears is high at this young age, as they would normally be with other litter mates and use play and interactions with their siblings to learn survival skills.
  • On occasion, the Commission will place a yearling bear (defined as a 12- to 24-month-old bear) in temporary captivity due to extreme malnutrition, but not due to injury. This can be done as these bears may be small enough to safely rehabilitate, still have some behavioral adaptability to a captive environment, and many steps are taken to ensure the bear does not become habituated.  

What is the Wildlife Commission doing to address vehicle-animal collisions?

  • Wildlife Commission and Department of Transportation Renew Focus on Wildlife Passages to Reduce Wildlife-Vehicle Collisions
  • According to NC Department of Transportation, 20,331 wildlife-vehicle collisions were reported across the state in 2019, and 18,607 such collisions were reported in 2020 — a decrease the NCDOT largely attributes to reduced travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. 
    • A 2021 release from the department estimated that 7 percent of all reported vehicle crashes in the state involve animal strikes, with almost half occurring in the twilight hours or at night, between October and December. 
  • NCWRC and NCDOT have collaborated for decades during project planning to address these road safety impacts related to wildlife, resulting in 26 wildlife crossing structures across the state successfully providing wildlife passage. 
  • These wildlife crossing structures can include overpasses, underpasses, and fencing along roads and highways. Examples include a passage corridor along Cold Springs Creek and Harmon Den Road under Interstate 40 in Haywood County as well as three underpasses on Interstate 140 south of Wilmington in Brunswick County. 
  • NCDOT and NCWRC are currently collaborating on 11 additional projects in various stages of planning, with several awaiting construction while others are still in the design phase.
  • For the first time ever, Congress made a major investment in wildlife crossings in the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, allocating $350 million for a Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program that will help fund projects in all 50 states. The North Carolina General Assembly is considering allocating resources to wildlife passages that could be leveraged to match the available federal funding within the pilot program.

 

Photo information: Rehabilitating black bear cubs that are less than 1 year old (such as this 6-week old bear cub) for eventual release in the wild is a common practice among state wildlife agencies, including in North Carolina.

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