ELKINS, W.Va. (AP) — Only an occasional peep escaped from the cardboard box a group of people had carried through knee-deep snow up a steep mountainside in Randolph County.
Inside the box was an orphaned bear cub, and the group’s mission was to find her a foster family. They found one asleep in a hole about 3,300 feet up Cheat Mountain.
The cub was recently found along a state highway near the Braxton-Webster County line.
A woman picked the bear up when she found it wandering the wilderness without its mother, which is the wrong thing to do, said Colin Carpenter, a wildlife biologist with the state Division of Natural Resources.
Carpenter is the state leader for the black bear study project.
The orphaned cub should have been left where it was seen because it was likely near its den, Carpenter said.
“The mother usually comes back and gets the cub,” he said. “In most cases they do not truly abandon their cub.”
Be that as it may, the cub was given to DNR officials, who had to find a foster family for the housecat-sized baby animal.
Fortunately, bears make excellent adoptive parents, Carpenter said. He and others typically have to find homes for a few cubs a year, he said.
“But we don’t want people picking up bear cubs when they find them in the woods,” he said. “They should leave them alone.”
The DNR officers knew of a bear that was living in the Elkins area that would likely have cubs of her own.
The sow, named Patty by biologists, had been fitted with a tracking collar a few years before as part of the overall bear population and survival management study, Carpenter said.
So, Steve Wilson, a wildlife biologist with the DNR’s Elkins office, tracked her down to the den where she was spending the winter with her three small cubs. Carpenter and Wilson figured the bear wouldn’t mind having a fourth little one placed in the den with her.
Earlier this month, the biologists made the trek to the den carrying the orphan cub in a cardboard box with air holes punched in the side.
The baby, which won’t be named for a year, took the ride up the mountain in stride.
The sow was found sleeping in a den that could have been easily missed. It was nothing more than a hole in the ground from a toppled tree’s root ball.
“It would have been real easy to walk right by it,” Wilson said with a smile.
When most people think of a bear’s den, they think of a cave, but that is almost never the case, he said.
Bears typically live in small holes in the ground like Patty or in a cleft in a rock face. Some even make a den under a treetop that has been knocked over for whatever reason.
Simply put, they’ll live in just about anything that offers concealment and some protection from the weather.
The cub drop
Wilson left the small party that accompanied him, including volunteers who would help him take the sow’s vitals, as he approached the den a short distance from the path.
In his hand were two tranquilizer darts that would be delivered using a type of CO2 gun.
Wilson wasn’t too worried about waking the sow because she was sleeping through the winter and the bears are typically very groggy during this time of year, he said.
But he had no intentions of being careless, and stretched a net across the entrance to catch the bear if she bolted.
He carefully poked his head into the den to see if he had a clear shot at the sow before shooting her with one dart.
Ten minutes later, she was out.
Wilson then climbed halfway into the den to take hold of Patty’s collar. She was pulled from the den onto the ground outside.
Wilson, 60, has done this duty more times than he can count over the past 30 years but has never been attacked.
“But I grabbed hold of a bear once that I thought was drugged, and it wasn’t,” he added. “That’s when I got bit.”
“I just got a few stitches,” he said with a shrug.
Had he missed with the dart and Patty was still awake, he said he could have just remained on the ground in the den.
“They’re not very aggressive,” he said. “She probably would have just walked right over top of me to get out.”
After she was pulled from the den, her teeth were checked and a blood sample was taken. She weighed in at about 190 pounds, which is a “good-sized” sow, Wilson said.
“She was well over 200 pounds when she went into the den,” Carpenter said.
Bears begin what people refer to as hibernation in December, he said. Although it is not a true hibernation — a bear will wake up while in the winter den — they live off stored fat and do not produce waste, he said.
The sows have their cubs while in the den. Two females and one male, each weighing about 4 pounds, were found March 14 on Cheat Mountain. The orphaned cub weighed about five pounds, Carpenter said.
The cubs’ hair was measured, which gives biologists an estimate of how old they are. Each was about 2 months old, the same age as the orphan that was to become their adopted sister.
Before the cubs were placed back in the den, a dab of Vicks VapoRub was smeared on their heads between the eyes. This ensured the cubs all smelled alike when the mother awoke.
It also helps to mask the smell of humans on the babies, Wilson said.
When asked if the bear would notice that she had an extra cub when she woke up, Wilson answered, “She can’t count.”
Bear sows are very good about adopting other cubs, Wilson said. The success rate for foster cubs is nearly 100 percent, Carpenter added.
Any foster cubs that die while living with their mother were likely not abandoned by the sow, he said.
“This sow will probably lose one of those four cubs by fall for some reason,” Wilson said.
The mother bear will not breed again until after she has forced the cubs to live on their own, something that should happen by midsummer of 2014, Carpenter said.
Females will often live near their mothers, but males tend to move further away.
“Related females often have overlapping home ranges,” Carpenter said.
Once all of the measurements were taken and recorded, the mother and cubs were placed back in the den. The sow would wake up about three to four hours after being tranquilized no worse for wear, Carpenter said.
“She’ll be a little groggy for a bit, but she’ll be OK,” he said.
Biologists will check on her now and then as part of the habitat and survival study, but she will be left alone in most cases, Wilson said.
DNR officials must keep a close eye on the population.
At one time in the late 1960s, DNR officials estimated that there were only about 500 black bears in the entire Mountain State, Carpenter said. These bears were confined to the eastern mountains of West Virginia, he said.
Hunting and destruction of habitat had almost wiped out the state animal. However, proper management techniques, such as adjusting the hunting season, have helped the bears make an extraordinary comeback, Carpenter said.
The information gathered from collared bears is used to help develop the state’s black bear management plan. The only really effective way for the DNR to manage the state’s black bear population is by adjusting the hunting season.
If the season is moved to later in the year, like December, fewer females will be killed because they’ll be giving birth in their dens.
More females equals more cubs being born.
Moving the season to earlier in the year means that more females will be killed, thus helping to decrease the population.
The only real predators bears have to worry about are humans, Carpenter said.
Like any wild animal, an overpopulation of bears can cause problems. They move into residential areas and become a nuisance and safety hazard.
“The land around here will support more bears than humans will tolerate,” he said.
Bears have been spotted walking through downtown Elkins and have also been seen around cities like Charleston, Morgantown and Beckley, Carpenter said.
In fact, Carpenter is wrapping up a study looking at the urban bear population.
“Preliminarily, the study shows that urban bears are vulnerable to hunting,” Carpenter said.
This is because the urban bears will live in and near the cities during the summer, but will move into more rural areas where hunting occurs in fall when acorns and other “hard mast” such as hickory nuts, become plentiful, he said.
A black bear can live to be about 30, Carpenter said. Patty was in her mid-teens, which makes her middle-aged.
Younger black bears typically have one to two cubs. A mature female will have three, Carpenter said.
“And sometimes a mature female will have four,” he said.