W.Va. DNR traps bears to serve as surrogate mothers

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Biologists will keep busy in southern West Virginia this summer, trapping adult female black bears to serve as surrogate mothers to orphaned cubs. Division of Natural Resources officials have maintained a cadre of surrogate mothers for years in the Elkins area, but only now are expanding the effort to the state’s southern counties.

State wildlife officials are trying to snare a few “volunteers.”

No, put down the phone. You aren’t qualified — unless, of course, you happen to be a black bear.

Later this week, biologists will set up traps in four southern West Virginia wildlife management areas. The goal: To capture up to 10 female bears, outfit them with radio collars and, perhaps as early as next spring, have them serve as surrogate mothers to orphaned cubs.

“Every year, people bring us two to five cubs that have been orphaned, or at least cubs that people think have been orphaned,” said Colin Carpenter, the DNR’s bear project leader. “In past years, we’ve been pretty successful at placing orphaned cubs with females that have young cubs.”

The orphan program has been run out of the DNR’s Elkins Operations Center by biologist Steve Wilson. With Wilson scheduled to retire soon, the responsibility fell to Carpenter, who works out of the agency’s Beckley office.

“Logistically, it would be pretty difficult for me to keep track of those [Elkins] bears and place cubs with them,” Carpenter said. “Besides, we were down to just four or five collared sows in the Elkins area, and we like to keep at least 10 available. So I figured we would try to collar some bears [close to Beckley].”

Though he’d be happy to end up with four or five new radio-equipped females by early fall, Carpenter said he’ll probably end up trapping several more bears than he needs.

“We always catch a bunch of males in the process, and obviously they aren’t what we need,” he explained. “We want to eventually get 10 females because they have cubs at two-year intervals instead of annually. Having 10 should ensure that we have four or five lactating females available to us no matter what year it is.”

If all goes as planned, the sows will be trapped with cable snares, tranquilized and outfitted with collars. The work will take place on four state-owned pieces of public property: the Beury Mountain Wildlife Management Area, the Plum Orchard Lake WMA, the Bluestone WMA and Camp Creek State Forest.

“It will be interesting to see how many bears we turn up,” Carpenter said. “I’ve only ever trapped on Beury Mountain, and that was years ago. Most of the trapping I’ve done has been in Raleigh, Boone, Kanawha and Fayette counties, all of which have lots of bears. I don’t know how many bears are on these new areas we’re targeting. I guess we’ll see.”

Carpenter has already begun baiting the targeted areas and plans to set out some snares this week. “With a little luck, I should have collars on a few bears by sometime in August,” he said.

The radio collars will allow biologists to quickly find the dens of sows with newborn cubs. Carpenter said that if orphaned or abandoned cubs are placed with lactating sows early enough, the sows accept the orphans quite readily.

DNR officials acknowledge that the orphaned-cub program is relatively expensive for the limited benefit it provides. Paul Johansen, the DNR’s assistant wildlife chief, said the effort is largely an exercise in public relations.

“The bottom line is that people don’t like it when we euthanize young cubs, so we put them with surrogate mothers in an effort to keep from offending the public,” he said.

Carpenter said fewer surrogates would be needed if people wouldn’t automatically assume that a young cub found without its mother nearby has been orphaned or abandoned.

“It’s hard for people to tell whether a cub is truly an orphan,” he said. “More often than not, though, it isn’t. If a den site gets disturbed, a sow might run away from a newborn cub, but it typically will come back.

“Sometimes when people are doing construction or something, den sites get destroyed. But unless the cubs have been buried alive in the den, the sow will generally come back. Usually she doesn’t go far, maybe 100 to 200 yards, and she just hangs out there, waiting for the people to go away. So it’s a good idea for people who find young cubs to simply leave the area for a while. Chances are the sow will come back and reclaim her cub.”

Inevitably, though, the urge to help a young, seemingly helpless animal overcomes most people. When that happens, DNR biologists must call on their radio-toting “volunteers” to step in and save the day.

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