Orphaned Black Bear Cubs

  1. Are black bear populations endangered?
  2. How do black bear cubs become orphaned?
  3. Are all cubs found alone really orphans?
  4. What is Manitoba's policy for dealing with orphaned bear cubs?
  5. Why not send a cub to a Manitoba bear rehabilitation facility or a facility in another province?
  6. What are some of the problems with sending orphaned cubs out-of-province?
  7. What is the likelihood of an orphaned cub surviving in the wild?
  8. Are rehabilitation programs successful?
  9. How can rehabilitated bears affect the conservation and welfare of wild bears?

Are black bear populations endangered?

Across North America, there are an estimated 1 million black bears.  In Manitoba, there are approximately 30,000 black bears.  The population is considered stable to increasing and healthy.

While an estimated 11,000 cubs are born every year, between 2,000 and 5,500 die from natural causes before they reach one year of age.  Estimates are that about 30 per cent of male cubs will survive to breeding age (about five years old) in the wild.

How do black bear cubs become orphaned?

Black bear cubs may be orphaned when they become separated from their female for several reasons, including:

  • the female abandons its cub(s) due to her inability to produce milk;
  • fire or drought;
  • human disturbances at den sites (e.g., snowmobile/cross-country ski trails, timber/mining operations); or
  • if the female is killed by a vehicle, or after a conflict with people, or a hunter. 

Are all cubs found alone really orphans?

Female bears may leave their cub(s) for up to 15 hours at a time while they search for food elsewhere.  

When people handle or move cubs, it increases the chances that the female may abandon them or be unable to find them.  The best way to help is to leave the cub where it is found and not disturb it.  Hovering too close to the cub could cause the female to be afraid to retrieve it.

Anyone who believes a cub has been abandoned should leave it where it is and, as soon as possible, advise the nearest Manitoba Sustainable Development office of the exact location.

What is Manitoba's policy for dealing with orphaned bear cubs?

Each cub is assessed on a case-by-case basis.  If the cub is healthy and uninjured, and there is a reasonable chance of survival, it will be released in an area near where it was found but away from people.  A general guideline of about five-plus months and eight kg (18 lbs) is used to assess the likelihood of survival.

If releasing the cub is not appropriate, staff will contact an accredited Manitoba zoo or wildlife facility to see if they can provide a permanent home for the cub.  If this is not possible, the cub will be euthanized.

Why not send a cub to a Manitoba bear rehabilitation facility or a facility in another province?

Several Manitoba wildlife rehabilitation facilities care for a number of species of wild animals and birds, but they are currently not licensed to care for bears.

The four bear rehabilitation facilities in British Columbia and one in Saskatchewan do not accept out-of-province bears.  There are two bear rehabilitation facilities in central Ontario that will accept out-of-province bears; however, the Ontario government insists that cubs must be returned to the province of origin for release, which is contrary to international guidelines.  Each of these facilities is privately owned and funded.

No provincial government currently funds bear rehabilitation facilities in Canada.  A wildlife rehabilitation centre for bears could be established in Manitoba after a detailed proposal has been reviewed and approved by Manitoba Sustainable Development.  The proposal would need to include a business plan that shows funding and ongoing operational support has been secured.  As well, the facility will need to meet or exceed international standards for the species to be rehabilitated.

What are some of the problems with sending orphaned cubs out-of-province?

According to the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre at the University of Saskatoon and a number of international wildlife rehabilitation organizations, disease transmission is the greatest concern and advises against releasing bears held in captivity into wild populations.  

There is no guarantee a bear reared in captivity will not transmit parasites or diseases even after being examined by a veterinarian, as there are no tests for many animal diseases. 

What is the likelihood of an orphaned cub surviving in the wild?

Studies have shown that more than 40 per cent of cubs orphaned in late May or later survive on their own.  A list of these references is provided below.

Are rehabilitation programs successful?

Very little information is available on survival rates of released rehabilitated bears.  Success, as defined by one expert, is when a rehabilitated bear is released to the wild in an area with few bears and an abundance of food, reproduces and stays away from human settlements.

Idaho's Black Bear Rehabilitation Center has some limited data.  Between 1989 and 2011, 212 black bear cubs have entered the facility.  Of these, 96 were tracked after they were released; only 36 per cent were known to live past one year.  Of these, only seven per cent were known to survive to two years of age.

Some studies have shown bears reared in captivity to have poor survival skills following release; other studies insist that if an orphaned bear cub is to be rehabilitated, it must avoid contact with people and not be exposed to their smell, voices or dwellings, which is very difficult to achieve.

How can rehabilitated bears affect the SD and welfare of wild bears?

Experts agree that the key to ensuring bear SD is to protect habitat and to minimize any genetic, health or behavioral consequences to wild populations.  Other concerns include:

  • the risk of spreading disease from captive bears to wild bears
  • wild bears not tolerating the released bear
  • the released bear lacking survival skills

For a more technical summary of the same information, please visit: Technical Summary relating to Orphaned Cubs.


The following journals, articles and scientific papers are available through a Google Search on the web or through your local public library for a fee.

Cub Survival References

ALT, G.L. and J.J. BEECHAM. 1984.  Reintroduction of orphaned black bear cubs into the wild. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 12:169-174.

BEECHAM, J. 2006.  Orphan bear cubs – rehabilitation and release guidelines.  World Society for the Protection of Animals.

ELOWE, K.D., AND W.E. DODGE. 1989.  Factors affecting black bear reproductive success and cub survival. Journal of Wildlife Management 53:962–968.

ERICKSON, A.W. 1959.  The age of self-sufficiency in black bear. Journal of Wildlife Management 23:401–405.

LINDZEY, F.G., AND E.C. MESLOW. 1980. Harvest and population characteristics of black bears in Oregon (1971–74).  International Conference on Bear Research and Management 4:213–219.

KOLENOSKY, G.B. and S.M. STRATHERN (unpublished report 1987).  Movements and survival of orphan black bear cubs in east-central Ontario. 

OLFENBUTTEL, BRIDGES, and VAUGHAN (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA, unpublished data, 2002)

ROGERS, L.L.  1985. Aiding the wild survival of orphaned bear cubs.  USDA – Forest Service North Central Forest Experimental Station 1992 Folwell Avenue St. Paul, MN 55108

SWENSON, J.E., R. FRANZEN, P. SEGERSTROM and F. SANDEGREN.  1998. On the age of self-sufficiency in Scandinavian brown bears. Acta Theriologica.  43:213-218.

WILLOCK, A. (Canadians for Bears, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, personal communication, 2002)

Yearling Survival References

ELOWE, K.D. and W.E. DODGE. 1989. Factors affecting black bear reproductive success and cub survival.  Journal of Wildlife Management 53(4): 962-968

JONKEL, C.J. and I.M. COWAN. 1971. The black bear in the spruce-fir forest. Wildlife Monograph 27:42

LEE, D.J. and M.R. VAUGHAN. 2005. Yearling and sub-adult black bear survival in a hunted Virginia population.  Journal of Wildlife Management 69(4):1641-1651

Other References

Beecham, J.J. 1980. Population characteristics, denning, and growth patterns of black bears in Idaho. Ph.D. Dissertation, Univ. of Montana, Mis­soula. 101pp.

Beecham, J.J. and J. Rohlman. 1994. A shadow in the forest: Idaho's black bear. The University of Idaho Press, Moscow. 245pp.

Binks, M. 2008. Post-release behaviour and survival of shelter-reared, juvenile black bears in central Ontario. M.S. Thesis. Laurentian University, Sudbury, ON.

Binninger, C.E., J.J. Beecham, L.A. Thomas and L.D. Winward. 1980. A serologic survey for selected infectious diseases of black bears in Idaho. J. Wildl. Dis. 16(3):423-430.

Butterworth B.B. 1969. Postnatal growth and development of Ursus ameri­canus. J. Mamm. 50:615-616.

Carlstead, K. and J. Seidensticker. 1991. Seasonal variation in stereotypic pacing in an American black bear, Ursus americanus. Behavioural Pro­cesses 25:155-161.59

Carney, D.W. and M.R. Vaughan. 1987. Survival of introduced black bear cubs in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. Intern. Conf. Bear Res. And Man­age. 7:83-85.

Clark, S.H., J. O'Pezio, and C. Hackford. 1980. Fostering black bear cubs in the wild. Intern. Conf. Bear Res. And Manage. 4:163-166.

Clark, J.E. 1999. Survival of orphaned black bears released in the Smoky Moun­tains. M.S. Thesis, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Clark, J.D., D. Huber, and C. Servheen. 2002.  Bear reintroductions: lessons and challenges. Ursus13:335-346.

Clark, J.E., M.R. Pelton, B.J. Wear, and D.R. Ratajczak. 2002. Survival of orphaned black bears released in the Smoky Mountains. Ursus 13:269-273.
Criswell, A.R. and G.J. Galbreath. 2005. Behavioral persistence in captive bears: a critique. Ursus 16(2):268-273.

Eastridge, R., and J.D. Clark. 2001. Evaluation of 2 soft-release techniques to reintroduce black bears.  Wildlife Society Bulletin 29:1163-1174.

Fischer, J., and D.B. Lindenmayer. 2000. An assessment of the published results of animal relocations.  Biological SD 96:1-11.

Griffith, B., J.M. Scott, J.W. Carpenter, and C. Evans. 2000.  Translocation as a species SD  tool: status and strategy. Science 245:477-480.

Huber, D., I. Kulier, A. Poljak, and B. Devjic-Kuhar. 1993. Food intake and mass gain of hand-reared brown bear cubs. Zoo Biology 12:525-533.

Huber, D. 2000. Why not to re-introduce "rehabilitated" brown bears to the wild. In: Rehabilitation and release of bears (Ed. by L. Kolter & J.J. van Dijk), pp. 28-34.

Hulley, J.T. 1976. Hand-rearing American black bear cubs Ursus americanus at Toronto Zoo. International Zoo Yearbook 16:202-205

IUCN. 1998. IUCN Guidelines for re-introductions. Prepared by the IUCN/SSC Re-intro­duction Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. 10 pp.

IUCN. 2002. IUCN Guidelines for the placement of confiscated animals. Prepared by the IUCN/SSC Re-introduction Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and ER­WDA, Abu Dhabi, UAE. 24 pp.

IUCN. 2004. 2004 IUCN red list of threatened species. World SD Union, Gland, Switzerland.

Jenness, R., A.W. Erickson and J.J. Craighead. 1972. Some comparative aspects of milk from four species of bears. J. Mamm. 53:34-47.

Jonkel, C.J., P. Husby, R. Russell, and J. Beecham. 1980. The reintroduction of or­phaned grizzly bear cubs in the wild. Intern. Conf. Bear Res. And Manage. 4:369-372.

Kilham, B. and E. Gray. 2002. Among the bears: raising orphan bear cubs in the wild. Henry Holt and Co., LLC. New York, NY. 289 pp.

Lunn N.J. and I. Stirling. 1985. The significance of supplemental food to polar bears during the ice-free period of Hudson Bay. Can J Zool 63:2291–2297

Maughan, S. 1995. Rehabilitating orphaned bear cubs. Proceedings of the Western Black Bear Workshop. 5:91-97

Maughan, S. 2005. Black bear rehabilitation handbook. Unpublished. Idaho Black Bear Rehabilitation, Inc. Garden City, ID.

Miller, E.A. 2000. Minimum standards for Wildlife Rehabilitation. 3rd edition. National Wildlife Rehabilitation Association. St. Cloud, MN. 77 pp.

Oftedal, O.T. and J.L. Gittleman. 1989. Patterns of energy output during reproduction in carnivores. Pages 355-378 in Carnivore behavior, ecology and evolution. J.L. Gittleman, ed. Chapman and Hall, London.

Palomero, Guillermo, J.C. Blanco, P. Garcia, and Gonzalo Palomero. 1997. Ecology and behavior of 3 wild orphaned brown bear cubs in Spain. Int. Conf. Bear Res. and Manage. 9(2):85-90.

Pazhetnov, V.S. and C.V. Pazhetnov.  2000. Reintroduction of orphan brown bear cubs. In: Rehabilitation and release of bears (Ed. by L. Kolter & J.J. van Dijk), pp. 53-61.

Rogers, L. L. 1986. Effects of translocation distance on frequency of return by adult black bears. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 14:76-80

Quigley, K. 2000. Immobilization and biological sampling protocols. Hor­knocker Wildlife Institute, Bozeman, MT. 31 pp.

Servheen, C. 1990. The status and SD of the bears of the world. Int. Conf. Bear Res. and Manage. Monogr. Series No. 2. 32pp.

Stiver, W.H., M.R. Pelton, and C.D. Scott. 1997. Use of pen-reared black bears for augmentation or reintroductions.  Int. Conf. on Bear Res. and Manage. 9(2):145-150.

Swenson, J.E., R. Franzen, P. Segerstrom and F. Sandegren.  1998. On the age of self-sufficiency in Scandinavian brown bears. Acta Theriologica. 43:213-218.

Van Dijk, J.J. 2000. Considerations for the rehabilitation and release of bears into the wild. In: Rehabilitation and release of bears (Ed. by L. Kolter & J.J. van Dijk), pp. 7-16.

Van Manen, F.T. and M.R. Pelton. 1997. Procedures to enhance the success of a black bear reintroduction program. Int. Conf. Bear Res. And Manage. 9(2):67-78.

Vickery, S.S. 2003. Stereotypic behaviour in caged bears: individual and husbandry factors. Dissertation, Oxford University, Oxford, UK.

Vickery, S. and G.12 Mason. 2003. Behavioural persistence in captive bears: implications for reintroduction. Ursus 14:35-43.

Woodford, M.H. (Ed.).  2000. Quarantine and Health Screening Protocols for Wildlife prior to Translocation and Release into the Wild Published jointly by the IUCN Species Survival Commission's Veterinary Specialist Group, Gland, Switzerland, the Office International des Epizooties (OIE), Paris, France, Care for the Wild, U.K., and the European Association of Zoo and Wildlife Veterinarians, Switzerland.