Last week, an abandoned bear cub was found in southeastern Manitoba—a rare occurrence this early in the year as most bears are busy hibernating. The three-week-old cub was found by a property owner who accidentally destroyed the bears’ den while clearing some logs and brush from his lot, scaring off the mother. The Manitoba government’s sustainable development branch was called and they relocated the cub to Black Bear Rescue Manitoba, a rehabilitation facility for orphaned and injured black bear cubs.
The decision to relocate the cub was made due to its young age and the slim chance of the mother returning. “In the majority of cases like this, with a disturbed den, the mother, she might come back, but the majority of times she’ll just abandon the cub,” says Judy Stearns, the president of Black Bear Rescue Manitoba. Even if the mother had returned, she would have been den-less and unable to keep the cub warm on a night that reached negative 25 degrees Celsius.
The cub will stay with Stearns at Black Bear Rescue Manitoba until November when they will reintroduce him to the wild. The facility, including outdoor enclosures, was built two years ago on Stearns’ property thanks to a $50,000 donation from none other than former “The Price is Right” host Bob Barker.
Last year, the facility fostered three cubs all released on October 30. “Our protocol calls for a fall release shortly before they’re going to go into hibernation naturally,” Stearns says. “We start reducing their food a month ahead and that starts their metabolism slowing down and goes into hibernation mode. And when we release a cub it’s instinctual to build a den. They don’t need their mother.”
Black Bear Rescue Manitoba was one of the first facilities to introduce a fall release for cubs, following the advice of Dr. John Beecham, a bear biologist based out of Idaho who consults for the facility. According to Beecham’s research, a cub released in the fall has a higher survival rate because when they wake up from hibernation in April, they’re further removed from human contact and less likely to wander into a dangerous situation.
Stearns adds that if the facility is forced to foster a cub over the winter, it is possible to successfully release the cub in the spring. “We would be having to do a spring release if we got a cub in the fall and don’t have enough time to fatten them up and get them robust enough,” she says. But the release must happen in a remote location far away from humans as the spring is prime-time for a cub to encounter cottagers, hikers, and hunters.
If a member of the public does encounter a potentially abandoned bear cub in the wild, Stearns suggests not acting too hastily. “I would recommend people observe it from a distance, if they can, just to establish first that the mother isn’t nearby because you wouldn’t want to take a cub out of the wild and its mother was nearby foraging, although she doesn’t usually go too far.” Stearns says it would only be necessary to take immediate action if the cub was in some kind of danger, such as wandering alone next to a highway. If that’s the case, people should call their local bear or wildlife rescue organization and the wildlife branch of their provincial government.
The action taken also depends on the cub’s age. Typically, you can estimate their age by size. If you spot a bear cub in the summer that’s approximately the size of a cocker spaniel, that means it was likely born that year—most bear cubs are born in January. If it’s that young and its mother isn’t in sight, then that’s a concern. “They should be with their mother during that entire first year. Just because the main thing is protection from predators.”
The currently unnamed cub being fostered by Stearns is too young to walk and has yet to open its eyes. For now, he’s bottle fed, subsisting on puppy-milk replacer. “Their cubs are physiologically very similar to dogs and so you feed them as you would a pup,” Stearns says. The cub has a healthy appetite, happily sucking away on a bottle every two hours—not to mention the occasional finger.