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Kenyon: Upper Valley Bear rehabilitator Kilham has a nutty request

  • Mink the bear is seen in a yard on Gilson Road in West Lebanon, N.H., just south of the border with Hanover, N.H., on May 9, 2020. (Bryan Marquard photograph)

Valley News Columnist
Published: 11/10/2020 9:51:09 PM
Modified: 11/10/2020 9:51:05 PM

Ben Kilham needs nuts. Acorns to be precise. And if you have any apples to spare, he’ll gladly take those as well.

The Kilham Bear Center in Lyme is currently caring for 45 cubs — and counting — that have been orphaned, injured or abandoned since they were born in the wild last winter.

While New Hampshire and Vermont still have a “healthy bear population,” it’s been a tough year food-wise, particularly in northern parts of the two states, Kilham told me.

The summer’s drought decimated the wild berry crop. Beech nuts were sparse. It’s also been a “spotty apple year,” Kilham said.

“When there’s no food, the sows travel and that’s when they get hit by vehicles,” Kilham said.

Their orphaned cubs are unlikely to make it through the winter on their own. That’s where Kilham comes in. New Hampshire and Vermont wildlife officials bring the cubs to the nonprofit Kilham Bear Center (kilhambearcenter.org), which Ben runs with his wife, Debbie, and sister, Phoebe. His nephew Ethan also pitches in.

The Kilham family — Ben and Phoebe are state-licensed wildlife rehabilitators — watch over the cubs until they’re about about 18 months old. In May or June, state wildlife officials release the cubs, with ear tags, into large forested areas.

The Kilhams have 8 acres of fenced-in hardwoods, where cubs can develop climbing and foraging skills in a natural setting before they’re released.

On Monday, 29 cubs roamed the forested enclosure. Before long, they’ll head into the enclosure’s natural and man-made dens for the winter. Until then, the Kilhams are putting out bushels of acorns to supplement the young bears’ diets.

Acorns are packed with carbohydrates and fats that bears need to “get them through the winter,” Ben Kilham said.

The center’s remaining cubs are kept in an indoor enclosure equipped with wooden poles, made from trees, that the bears climb to reach walkways and small dens high above the ground, which is layered with sawdust. The “indoor” cubs are the center’s smallest — some weighing as little as 15 pounds — and newest arrivals.

Phoebe Kilham feeds them acorns that she lugs into the enclosure in five-gallon plastic pails, plus apples and dry dog food. “They don’t need much — just food and a place to sleep,” she said. (The Kilhams are building a new and improved heated indoor enclosure on a nearby part of their 100-acre parcel.)

In the wild, acorns are a staple of a bear’s diet in the fall and spring. When they come out of hibernation and there’s not much growing in the woods, bears scavenge for the hard-shelled nuts. “Nothing else lasts as well as acorns,” Ben Kilham said.

I’ve always thought that bears ate acorns whole, shells and all, but Kilham set me straight.

“They crack them with their teeth and then put them on the back of a paw, where they separate the meat from the shell,” he explained.

I think it’s fair to say that few people know more about black bears than Ben Kilham. He’s been studying and photographing them for 30 years, along with writing two books and giving about 600 public talks. He’s been caring for cubs since 1993.

You also couldn’t find a bigger advocate than the 68-year-old Kilham.

“Nobody needs to be afraid of bears,” he said.

They’re only drawn to residential areas when there’s a lack of natural food — and when people unwittingly invite them in by leaving out bird feeders, untethered garbage cans and dumpsters. Some people mistakenly think they’re helping bears by feeding them.

Take Mink — the Upper Valley’s most famous bear — named for the Mink Brook Nature Preserve south of downtown Hanover where she often denned and foraged with her cubs.

After Mink wandered through his yard, a well-meaning elderly Hanover resident provided her with a steady supply of maple-frosted crullers from Lou’s Bakery. (What bear, or person, for that matter, wouldn’t keep coming back for those sugary, doughy delights?)

In 2017, after two of Mink’s cubs entered a Hanover home through a sliding door on a deck, wildlife authorities recommended the family of bears be destroyed. But Gov. Chris Sununu intervened. Mink was tranquilized, outfitted with a tracking collar and, along with her three cubs, relocated to northern New Hampshire.

Over the next few years, Mink traveled thousands of miles, the tracking collar revealed, regularly returning to the Upper Valley with a litter of cubs in tow.

“Mink was the ambassador,” Kilham said. “She was the bear that got everyone’s attention.”

Thanks largely to Mink, Upper Valley residents are “beginning to learn to live with bears,” he said. “They feel more comfortable about having bears around.”

In late August, Mink’s body was found near the Mascoma River in Lebanon. From examining her well-worn teeth, wildlife experts estimate she was about 30 years old. She was an “extremely old bear,” who appears to have died of natural causes, Kilham said.

Two of her cubs, born in January, were later found and brought to the Kilhams. (A third was struck and killed by a bus.) The two cubs are being kept in the indoor enclosure. “They’re extremely shy around people,” but are interacting well with other bears in the enclosure, Phoebe Kilham told me.

Which brings me back to acorns.

A few years ago, Ben Kilham placed a wooden bin at the start of his driveway on Grafton Turnpike Road, a mile or so up the road from Dartmouth Skiway. On Lyme’s listserv, he asked for acorn donations.

This year, as word has spread on other social media, the response has exploded. The center is getting bags of acorns from people who drop them off after raking their lawns.

But the Kilhams can always use more. For bears, there’s no time like fall to get cracking.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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