A bittersweet goodbye: 137 orphaned, abandoned black bears returning to the wild
This time of year, young black bears who are about 1 1/2 years old leave their mothers.
The males travel in search of their own territory. Females stick closer to their mother’s home range.
The Kilham Bear Center in Lyme New Hampshire, which raises orphaned cubs, tries to mimic this behavior by releasing bears into the wild in late spring and early summer. This year they raised and are releasing 137 black bears — including two from western Massachusetts.
Debbie Kilham, who helps run the center, recently orchestrated the transfer of these animals from an 11-acre wooded enclosure, where many have been raised, to protected public land.
“Butt first. Butt first," she directed a group of Vermont and New Hampshire wildlife agency staff members, who carefully placed two male black bears belly-down on the floor of an open barn.
The bears had been knocked out with an anesthetic so they can be moved, tagged and weighed.
One bear, who the center calls Dutch, weighs 143 pounds. Just over a year ago, Dutch arrived from Tolland, Massachusetts, weighing a little more than 5 pounds.
"[Those bears are] chunky. They’ve been here the longest," Kilham said.
Dutch was brought here after he was found without his mother in a residential neighborhood. He has a ruffle of brown fur down his spine, and a tan snout.
Another cub found in western Massachusetts — in Greenfield — will also be released. She was brought here in April 2022 after her mother was killed by a car.
Each bear gets a small metal ear tag with a number on it, identifying that it came from this facility. A message on the tag asks anyone who handles the bear — whether it be a hunter or someone else — to return the tag to the state wildlife agency so it can track the fate of the animal.
While a veterinarian and state wildlife experts monitored these bears, Debbie’s nephew, Ethan Kilham, was up in the woods trying to get a few more to follow him. Only Ethan can do that.
"Because the bears will not trust us. The bears only really know Ethan," Debbie Kilham said.
This exclusive relationship is at the heart of the center’s approach to rehabilitation. It was developed by Ben Kilham, Ethan’s uncle and Debbie’s husband, who raised his first bear cubs nearly 30 years ago.
The idea is one person cares for them — feeding the cubs when they’re young and later leading them into a fenced woods where they teach themselves how to find food, using big paws and a keen sense of smell.
Ethan’s presence in the woods is kind of like a surrogate Mom, according to Ben Kilham.
"We're able to emulate the mother's position by being that protective umbrella," he said.
He said the cubs’ relationship with Ethan won’t make them more likely to approach humans when they’re released. That's because, according to Ben Kilham, bears see bears and humans as individuals.
This year Ethan raised a bumper crop of bears: 105 from New Hampshire, 28 from Vermont, two from Connecticut and two from Massachusetts. They had so many cubs this year, many late-arrivals were raised in barns, instead of the enclosed woods.
Ben Kilham said one reason for the large group this year is because natural food, such a acorns and beech nuts, were scarce — something he said is happening more frequently.
"They're skinny and they're starving and they show up in somebody's yard because that's where the food is," Kilham said.
Bears can poach bird seed from feeders, chickens outside of electric fences and garbage that’s not secured. That can lead to human-bear conflicts and more orphaned cubs.
Forest Hammond, a retired wildlife biologist with Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, helped with the release. Three decades ago, Hammond brought Ben Kilham his first cubs.
"We consider this a big success," Hammond said. "We think he's got one of the most successful programs, probably in the world, with bears. And we like it, working for the state agencies, in that bears are orphaned, it actually gives a way of those bears being able to survive and go back to the wild with a very small chance of being a problem later."
When Dutch and two others started to wake up, they were loaded into a kind of bear train — three cages, each holding one bear, pulled on a trailer behind a truck — heading to Vermont.
Each bear sat up. It was quite a sight going down the road.
Jaclyn Comeau, the black bear project leader with the state of Vermont, said she has no problem releasing Massachusetts bears in her state.
"We‘ve occasionally had bears that were tagged down in Connecticut disburse all the way up to Vermont. We know our bears in Vermont disburse to New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Canada, southern New England. So, this is all part of the normal genetic mixing even without us moving them around like this," she said.
There were no big tearful goodbyes for Dutch, even from Ethan Kilham, who raised the cub since he was just a few months old.
"Easy-going, lovable, one-of-the gang, pretty gentle, soft-spoken," Kilham said about Dutch. "It’s always bittersweet. You know you can’t keep them. You don’t want to keep them. But also you have formed some sort of relationship. And this year there's so many of them that it’s a lot of relationships to say goodbye to in a short amount of time."
The truck carrying Dutch and two other bears pulled away, heading to a wildlife management area in Vermont.
"It’s bumpy, but I think they’ll be okay," said Vermont wildlife specialist Tony Smith, as he drove the bears down an old logging road.
This wildlife area is filled with food and habitat for the bears: fields with dandelions and other greens, mixed forests with deciduous and fragrant fir trees, as well as a few brambly breaks in the forest, cut by state workers.
"You can see all the blackberries there," Smith said, pointing out the window. "Then there’s elderberries, just a lot of berries that you see growing in little teeny openings that the bears like."
Smith said a place like this gives the bears their best shot away from people, except during hunting season, which starts in September.
He chooses a stretch of forest to release each bear on its own, a distance from each other, on the edge of the woods.
Then, it was Dutch’s turn.
"This is a nice shaded spot. I think we’ll try to open this door," Smith said. "He’ll be able turn around in here and go this way.
Once the cage opened, Dutch leaned out, panting a bit, taking his time to drop to the ground. He looked over his shoulder, back at Smith, before heading just into the woods.
Often the bears will take a nap in the shade before exploring their new home.
Ben Kilham said they meet other bears, wild ones, and make friends and learn from them.
It’ll be a few years before they mate.