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New Hampshire's only bear rehabilitator has hands full with 27 orphan bear cubs

Published On: Jan 31 2013 08:31:20 AM HST
Updated On: Jan 30 2013 12:30:00 PM HST

Ben Kilham describes the difference between five and 20 orphan bear cubs in the winter.

LYME, N.H. -

It is a nutty winter for the state's only bear rehabilitator, Ben Kilham, who is caring for a record 27 orphaned bear cubs who will not go to sleep.

Over the past 20 winters, Kilham has had, on average three to five orphaned cubs hibernating in an enclosure near his home, deep in the woods behind Holt's Ledge.

The food bills have been minimal, because they slept through the season.

But this year, because so many sows were shot in chicken coops and bee hives across the state, searching for scarce food, Kilham has a problem.

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They are waking each other up, playing in the trees within the 8-acre fence, burning up the calories and running up a huge bill on Kibbles 'n Bits.

While Kilham received donations from residents in places like Shelburne, Tamworth and Moultonborough where the cubs were orphaned, and did receive one $2,500 grant from the New Hampshire Wildlife Heritage Foundation, it's been spent already on steam-flaked corn and dog food.

He estimates this year it will cost $1,000 per cub to get them through to June.

Kilham said it would be helpful for people to send a few dollars to the Bear Hill Conservancy to help get the cubs through.

Meantime, it is like he is running a frat house party that won't end.

They all get along and just want to play.

"It's kind of funny," he said.

In 20 years, the state's only licensed bear rehabilitator has successfully returned 85 bear cubs to the wild. In this year alone, it is looking like he will return 27.

Kilham studies the bears and still keeps in touch with a few, like "Squirty" a 16-year-old sow who has had eight sets of cubs totaling 16 babies.

This year, Kilham is dealing with what he calls "the perfect storm," of back-to-back good year/bad year for mast crops.

There was a very good year for acorns, berries and other natural food in 2011 which allowed the mothers to do well and produce lots of cubs.

All the orphan cubs were all born last January.

But in 2012, there was very little natural food in the woods, which forced the mothers to go after chickens and bee hives and get shot.

"I don't know why people do that. The damage is done and now you have a dead bear and three cubs in the tree," which were all brought to Kilham by Fish and Game.

On Tuesday, following a beautiful snowfall of about 4 fluffy inches, Kilham took a plastic five-gallon bucket of steam-flaked corn in the back of his truck and drove from his home to the enclosure area.

"The ones we bottle-fed are attached to us and they will greet me," he said.

A snowy-faced Black Bear cub lifted his head up as he saw the truck move toward the enclosure.

Some of the cubs came to Kilham as small as two pounds early last spring and had to be bottle fed by him, his sister Pheobe and his wife Debbie.

There is "Big Girl," "Clarkie," "Little E" (named for her home in Easton), "Bug", "Slothy" and the Moultonborough Twins.

"Bug" weighed two pounds at five months and normally, a bear that size would be 20 pounds. The only reason he survived was it was a mild spring and he was found at a feeder by someone who called authorities, Kilham said.

Bug, like the rest of the cubs, now weigh between 30 and 50 pounds.

For insurance reasons, Kilham will not let anyone into the bear enclosure so he takes my camera to get some good photos up close.

"They'll bite you," he said, noting that the severity of the bite is directly proportional to the level of offense. But it is usually once you have developed a rapport.

We could see snowy black blobs with brown noses watching us as the truck moved toward the entrance.

I sat in the truck and observed.

Inside the fence, Kilham walked a distance to a brush pile. It has cavities inside where 20 of the 27 bears have made into their home for the winter.

Few were really inside snoozing, as they should be.

From throughout the hardwood forest came moving black blobs, bounding towards Kilham and rubbing up against his jeans.

As he poured out the winter snack on to the snow, more seemed to come out from where ever they were playing to see him and get fed. There was no fighting over the food.

"They are programed to stay with their mother the entire winter, so they want to be with you," he said, particularly the ones he has had since infancy who follow him out to the gate.

There is another separate enclosure, in a barn, where there are seven more recently recovered orphan cubs.

Most of them are asleep, except one little female who is his most recent winter guest. She peers down at me from the top of a dog house located in the rafters of the open sided, chain link enclosure.

"Why don't you go to sleep?" Kilham asks.

New Hampshire has a population of 4,500 bears, according Kristine Rines, a state wildlife biologist who works with Kilham on rehabilitation and relocation.

By the 1960s the American Black Bear was nearly extripated from the state after years of unregulated hunting and more than 120 years where there was a bounty on their head. Rines said Kilham has done a lot to help return orphan bears to the wild and has taught biologists a lot about the animals at the same time.

While they are state property, there is no line item budget at Fish and Game for orphan bear food.

Those who would like to help Kilham pay for food for the bears are asked to send checks payable to the Bear Hill Conservancy Trust in care of Ben Kilham, P.O. Box 37 Lyme, NH. 03768. Kilham would prefer to receive checks instead of bags of food.

They will be able to allow the winter party to continue at Bear Hill.

Kilham would like to remind people that the bears can have no visitors.

"They are being returned to the wild and they should understand that," he said.

Paula Tracy writes about the outdoors for wmur.com and can be reached at paulatracy@roadrunner.com.

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