What Happens to Orphaned Black Bear Cubs in North Carolina?

An Overview of the Wildlife Commission’s Black Bear Cub Rehab Program

Author: NCWRC blogger/Tuesday, April 21, 2020/Categories: Blog, Education, Wildlife Management

What Happens to Orphaned Black Bear Cubs in North Carolina?

By: Colleen Olfenbuttel, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's Black Bear Biologist

Spring is finally here and, in addition to milder temperatures and budding trees, black bears have emerged from their dens and are becoming more active. This is also the time of year when black bear cubs may get separated from their mother as the family group explores their surroundings. While the separation is usually temporary and mom will return, cubs do become orphaned sometimes. But, luckily these cubs have the help of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and their licensed bear rehabilitators. Since 1976, the Commission has been rehabilitating and releasing orphaned black bear cubs through the agency’s cub rehabilitation program.

North Carolina was one of the first states to initiate a rehabilitation program for black bear cubs. In the early stages of the program (1970s–1980s), cubs were released to supplement population numbers, as the agency’s goal was to increase and restore the bear population. While black bears in North Carolina have been restored, the rehabilitation of orphaned bear cubs has continued to assure these cubs have the best chance of success once they are returned to the wild.

The Commission receives orphaned cubs from a variety of circumstances from as early as late January to as late as December, with the majority arriving April through June. If the cubs are not weaned or are in poor condition, they are initially placed with one of our three licensed wildlife rehabilitators in North Carolina. The rehabilitators provide the expert care, with limited to no human interaction, until the bears are about 7–8 months old. At that age, the cubs are released into an enclosure with naturally occurring hardwood forest for habitat. The bears overwinter together in this enclosure, which may help to remove any habituated behavior that may have occurred prior to intake and helps the bears learn to be bears from each other.

Rehabilitated bears are released as yearlings in the summer; we choose this period because this is the time of year that natural family break-up occurs, and early summer foods are starting to appear. Bears are released in the region (Mountains, Coastal Plain) where they were originally found and at sites that are reasonably far from human development and on state-managed lands. Because the bears’ first few days in the wild may be disorienting for them initially, the Commission releases them at heavy weights so that they have plenty of fat to burn until they can orient themselves to the area.

What should you do if you suspect a bear cub is orphaned?

If you suspect a cub or cubs have been orphaned, the best thing you can do is leave it alone and contact the Commission at 866-318-2401 or the district biologist for your area immediately: Download District Biologist Map (PDF)

The district biologist will assess the situation to confirm whether the cub, or cubs, are actually orphaned. Just because the cub is alone and the mother can’t be seen, doesn’t mean the cub is orphaned. It is always best to give the mother the opportunity to re-establish contact. And keep in mind, it is illegal in North Carolina to keep a black bear cub without a captivity permit. Once the district biologist confirms a cub is orphaned, he or she will capture the cub and deliver it to our two licensed bear rehabilitators for immediate care.

If you find a cub, please do not attempt to feed or care for it. This will cause the cub to become habituated to people, making it more challenging for successful rehabilitation back into the wild. And, food is not the first thing cubs often need; our experienced and licensed bear rehabilitators know what treatment is needed first. Cubs require a very specialized diet and animal formulas you purchase from the store can compromise the health of the cub. The Internet should only be used to find the Commission’s contact info and not as a resource for learning how to feed and care for a bear cub.

View a video of a yearling bear being released after being rehabilitated as an orphaned bear cub​.

If you are unable to view the video below, view it on YouTube


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