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Stray Bears Abound: Scarce Food Means Stranded Cubs

  • A male black bear cub stares inquisitively at human visitors outside his enclosure at Ben Kilham’s property in Lyme yesterday. The bear will retreat to the wooden “hibernation box” when he has gained the necessary weight to hibernate for several months, helped by generous amounts of milk, applesauce, and dog food doled out by Kilham.<br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    A male black bear cub stares inquisitively at human visitors outside his enclosure at Ben Kilham’s property in Lyme yesterday. The bear will retreat to the wooden “hibernation box” when he has gained the necessary weight to hibernate for several months, helped by generous amounts of milk, applesauce, and dog food doled out by Kilham.

    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Phoebe Kilham feeds a male bear cub a bowl of applesauce at her brother Ben Kilham’s bear sanctuary. <br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Phoebe Kilham feeds a male bear cub a bowl of applesauce at her brother Ben Kilham’s bear sanctuary.

    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • A male black bear cub stares inquisitively at human visitors outside his enclosure at Ben Kilham’s property in Lyme yesterday. The bear will retreat to the wooden “hibernation box” when he has gained the necessary weight to hibernate for several months, helped by generous amounts of milk, applesauce, and dog food doled out by Kilham.<br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Phoebe Kilham feeds a male bear cub a bowl of applesauce at her brother Ben Kilham’s bear sanctuary. <br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

Lyme — Ben Kilham is used to taking in, on average, a couple of orphaned bear cubs every winter, feeding them and acting as a surrogate parent until they reach maturity.

Kilham, a nationally recognized bear expert who lives in Lyme, is known for his hands-on approach, teaching cubs how to respond to stimuli in the wild, using his 8-acre forested enclosure as a working lab.

This year, however, is an oddly active one in the world of New England black bears. So far this year, Kilham taken in a total of 26 orphaned bear cubs

“This,” he said, “is very unusual.”

Forrest Hammond, a wildlife biologist with Vermont Fish and Wildlife, said the reason behind the glut of stray cubs is simple. In short, everything leads back to fluctuations in food availability.

Last year, food was plentiful, meaning bears could happily snack on beechnuts, apples and berries, usually up on high ridges away from hunters. Naturally, that led to a lower number of bears killed last year. It also led to more sows having cubs.

This year, the trend starkly reversed. There isn’t much food freely available to bears, so they begin to edge out of their territory toward hunters and more populous areas. That’s why 20 of Kilham’s 26 cubs this year came his way by July, before hunting season even began.

As the bears are more active, conflicts arise, leading to the orphaned cubs that end up in Kilham’s care.

“Bears got shot by people that were raising bees, bears broke into their chicken coops …” Ham

mond said. “More bears get hit on the highway because they’re outside their home ranges. They were searching for food further than they’d normally have to in most years.”

In Vermont, slightly fewer than 500 bears have been harvested by hunters this year. The state’s goal, Hammond said, is to surpass 500 by the conclusion of the hunting season on Wednesday, to thin a “robust” black bear population before the season is out.

Last year, according to Fish and Wildlife data, Vermont hunters took 396 black bears.

The issue of food availability isn’t just centered on Vermont. Jane Vachon, a spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, said as of late last month, 742 bears have been harvested in the state during bear season, 45 percent higher than the five-year, in-season average. The New Hampshire hunting season also ends in most locations next week.

“It’s high,” said Vachon. “It’s so dependent on food availability, really. When food supplies are less available, the bears are ranging around looking for it, and the bears are easy to spot.”

Vachon said the bear population in New Hampshire “is basically stable,” at about 4,800 bears.

In Vermont, though, the population tops out at about 6,000 bears, and the annual hunting season provides a way to thin the numbers.

According to Hammond, the Green Mountain State bear population is growing at about 4 percent per year, and even though the state cautions hunters to avoid aiming for female bears with cubs nearby, it doesn’t always work that cleanly.

Despite the influx of guests, Kilham continues to accept the orphaned cubs, at a personal cost of about $2,500 per month, which buys apples, applesauce, dog food and hay, among other amenities.

When the bears have reached a point where they can thrive in the wild, Kilham gives the bears back to state wildlife officials, who then reintroduce them throughout larger wooded areas around the state.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248. Staff writer John P. Gregg contributed to this report.