What Happens to Orphaned Black Bear Cubs in North Carolina?

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

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

Updated Dec. 14, 2022
Every spring, black bears emerge from their dens and become more active. It’s 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 sometimes become orphaned. Luckily, these cubs have the help of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and their licensed bear rehabilitators.

Since 1976, the Wildlife Commission has been rehabilitating and releasing orphaned black bear cubs through the agency’s cub rehabilitation program, which was one of the first of its kind in the country. The cub rehabilitation program was even featured in episode seven of “Secrets of The Zoo: North Carolina.” 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 bear populations 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 Wildlife Commission receives orphaned cubs from a variety of circumstances, as early as late January, with the majority arriving April through June. The cubs are placed with one of two licensed wildlife rehabilitators that are experienced and trained in black bear cub rehabilitation. The rehabilitators provide the expert care and specialized food, with limited to no human interaction, until the bear cubs are about 7–8 months old. At that age, the cubs are released back into the wild, sometimes with uniquely-designed tracking collars to monitor their movements.

Biologists release cubs in early fall due to the availability of natural fall foods (e.g., acorns, fruits, and berries). Because the bear cubs’ first few days in the wild may be initially disorienting, they are released at heavier than average weights compared to their wild counterparts so that they have plenty of fat to burn until they can orient themselves to the area. Research has shown that limiting the amount of time that orphaned cubs remain in captivity, combined with maximizing weight at releases, greatly improves the outcomes for these cubs to be successful back in the wild.

Bear cubs 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.

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 immediately contact the Wildlife Commission at 866-318-2401 or the district biologist for your area.
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. 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. Please don’t use online resources as a learning tool for care for a bear cub. The best action is to contact the Wildlife Commission.

View video of a rehabilitated cub being released back into the wild with a tracking collar.
Video and photo credit: Colleen Olfenbuttel, NCWRC


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