LYME, N.H. — When a bad year for feeding followed a good one for breeding, New Hampshire's only licensed bear rehabilitator ended up with 27 orphaned cubs instead of the usual three or four.
Ben Kilham isn't losing any sleep over it, but the bears sure are.
"They've managed to keep themselves awake," he said. "There's always somebody who stirs up somebody else, and pretty soon, everybody's up."
Kilham keeps the cubs in an 8-acre enclosed forest behind his house until spring, when he works with the state Fish and Game Department to release them in remote locations. Normally, the bears sleep all winter, but not this bunch. For a while, Kilham tried withholding food in hopes that the bears would sleep, but that didn't work.
"They just roto-tilled the pen," he said. "It was obvious that they were seeking food, so we just gave up and started going back once a day feeding them."
Staying awake all winter won't hurt the bears any, he said, and if anything, they are better off having spent the winter in a large group. With just a few cubs, it was common for one to pace back and forth near the fence, Kilham said. But none of the current cubs are showing that kind of anxiety.
"They're just one big happy family, they roam around, play with each other," he said. "They are very, very happy as a big social unit."
Andy Timmins, the bear project leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, said officials were expecting more orphaned cubs than usual but were surprised at just how many turned up.
"It was like nothing we've ever seen. A high year in the past was maybe, seven or eight bears," he said. "It was a very challenging year, for sure, and we're not done yet. I'm absolutely positive there will be more showing up this spring as a result of these conditions last year."
The increase in orphaned cubs can be traced to a two-year swing in the bears' food supply. Younger female bears often don't give birth during leaner years, but with an abundance of beechnuts, berries and other food in 2011, there was a baby boom. In 2012, however, dry conditions meant food was scarce, and bears were forced to venture into backyards for food. Sows that foraged for food in chicken coops and beehives ended up getting shot by property owners, leaving the cubs behind. That's how 16 of the 27 cubs ended up with Kilham.
"The big wave of them came in June and July as a direct result of females getting shot in chicken pens," Timmins said. "It was just bang, bang, bang, with calls coming in from people saying, `I just shot a bear, come and pick it up.'"
The state has a program to help landowners install electric fencing to protect their coops, he said, but many are unwilling to use it. And the law is on the side of property owners.
"We bend over backwards to help people with that problem, and we'd like to see a little more tolerance out there among the public towards wildlife that might be attracted to the chicken pen," he said. "It's an easy fix."
"Once the bear's in your chicken coop, the damage is done so there's nothing gained by shooting the bear," he said.
Kilham, who has been studying bears for more than 20 years, has produced and appeared in numerous documentaries and written two books about bear social behavior. The second, titled "Out on a Limb," is due out this summer, and he's also working on a doctoral degree in environmental conservation that builds on his work in China helping wildlife experts who are reintroducing pandas to the wild.
Back in Lyme, much of the day-to-day care of bears falls to Kilham's sister, Phoebe, who said despite the added workload this year – which includes four sets of triplets – it's not hard for her to keep track of so many bears. Some of them are named for the towns where they were found – there's "Moultonborough One" and "Moultonborough Two" – while others have more whimsical such monikers as Clarkie, Big Girl and Slothy.
Clarkie is the group lookout and runs up to be fed first, she said. Others hang back and don't eat until the Kilhams leave. And thanks to an outpouring of donations after a local television station publicized the situation, they have plenty of dog food to keep everyone well-fed until spring.
"You get to recognize them by behavior as well as by sight," she said. "We do pretty well. Some of those last triplets were hard to tell apart, but otherwise we do pretty well."