ALBANY - After a season of scant berries and beechnuts, scrawny bear cubs have been wandering into some upstate New York towns searching for food before hibernation.
"We've seen more cubs than ever before," said Ed Reed, senior biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Reed and other biologists and wildlife rehabilitators have been busy responding to calls about bears in backyards and parking lots this fall, a time of year when nuisance bear reports are rare. "Generally, you don't get nuisance calls after September," he said.
"We saw five of them running around Glens Falls the other day," said Trish Marki of North Country Wild Care. The city 45 miles north of Albany has had numerous bear cub sightings for two months.
Reed said cubs normally weigh an average of 50 pounds this time of year, but biologists have seen a number of them weighing 15 to 20 pounds. They're unlikely to have enough body fat to make it through the winter, he said.
The summer of 2011 had a bumper crop of berries and other bear food, so females were fat and had more cubs than average over the winter. With an unusually mild winter, the cub survival rate was high. But the summer of 2012 was very dry in parts of the state, making food scarce and driving bears into towns to forage in trash cans. The fall crop of acorns and beechnuts was also poor in many places, Reed said.
"There were a lot of cubs added to the population and not much food," Reed said. "Now we're seeing those cubs turning up, and some of them are pretty small."
Jean Soprano, whose Kindred Kingdoms Wildlife Rehabilitation in Oswego County is the state's only facility licensed to care for black bears, said she has six cubs now and has released 10. Cubs usually are taken to her center in spring, not fall. "This is an unusual year," she said. "We've never had so many cubs. We never see little cubs in November."
Soprano said most of the small cubs she's seeing don't appear emaciated. "They appear to be younger than I would expect in November," she said. "They have small bone structure, the size of beagles. I'm not sure what it means. It could be that they were quadruplets."
Soprano and her husband, Len, keep the cubs in an enclosure deep in the woods and feed them with a trough pushed through a sliding door so they don't become habituated to being fed by humans. The bears are released to the wild when they're healthy.
Reed said officials will find out how adult bears fared with reduced food over the summer and fall when they compile reports from hunters over the winter.
He said the fluctuations in food supply and wildlife populations are nothing to worry about.
"We're trying to tell people this is a natural thing and if they see undersize cubs, leave them alone. Don't feed them," Reed said. "Some won't make it through the winter, but that's how nature works."