That black bear cub that you see alone near your home might not really be orphaned.
That's the message from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which is providing guidance to residents in East Tennessee's bear country on how to best respond to cubs that show up alone in residential areas.
The agency says it has received "numerous calls" from concerned citizens regarding sightings of black bear cubs seen alone, prompting the reminder that a cub that is alone might be that way for a good reason.
TWRA Captain Willard Perryman equates it to a human mother leaving her children with a babysitter while she goes to the grocery store to get something for her kids to eat — except, in the bear's case, the babysitter could be a tree that just happens to be in eyesight of someone's home.
Sows give birth to as many as four cubs while in their winter dens. In the spring, the mother bear and her young emerge, but food is scarce and sows are sometimes required to cover great distances to find enough calories for nursing. She will typically place her cubs in what she perceives to be a safe location while she is gone.
TWRA wildlife biologist Dan Gibbs said that TWRA has a system in place to address cubs that are truly orphaned. The agency contracts with Appalachian Bear Rescue in Townsend to care for sick, injured and orphaned bear cubs. The TWRA evaluates each case individually before determining whether to take the cub to the rescue operation.
Gibbs reminded residents that only TWRA and the National Park Service are allowed to catch or deliver a bear cub to Appalachian Bear Rescue.
David Whitehead, Appalachian Bear Rescue's curator, said the public should not jump to the conclusion that a cub is abandoned just because they may not see its mother. In some cases, he said, cubs may remain alone for hours.
Dana Dodd, president of the bear rescue operation, said that cubs sometimes wander away from where the sow placed them. It is best to back away from a cub that is seen alone, giving the sow a chance to return, she said. If someone is standing directly under a tree taking pictures of a cub, the mother might feel threatened and not come back.
"The worst thing you can do is to take a cub that is not truly orphaned from its mother," Dodd said. "The best case scenario is for a cub to remain with its mother because she can do a far better job at raising it than ABR can."
TWRA recommends not contacting the agency unless it can be confirmed that the mother bear is dead, or if the cub has been alone for more than 36 hours.