BLOUNT COUNTY - For the first time in more than 19 months, the Appalachian Bear Rescue is without any cubs.
The last black bear it had been rehabilitating for the season returned to the wild last week.
On Monday, WBIR 10News got a rare glimpse inside one of the enclosures where these cubs gain strength.
"This is what it looks like inside enclosure three - or inside a wild enclosure in general," ABR lead curator Coy Blair explained, opening the door to a chain link fence-enclosed half-acre space. "You can see it's a natural forested setting. They have trees that they can climb, just as they would in the wild."
The enclosure also has a tire bridge for the bears to play on, a watering and splashing tub and several dens where bears can sleep or keep warm in cool weather.
Per state regulation, Blair said, only curators can be on property when bears are in ABR's care. That's why WBIR's inside glimpse is a rare one.
"It is a regulation," ABR board president Dana Dodd explained, "but probably more importantly, we release all of these cubs back to the wild and you can't habituate them to people and be successful in releasing them."
56 bears have cycled through here in the last 19 months, Dodd said.
Now that Finnegan, the final cub of the season, has been released to the wild, Blair said, "we're kind of hoping that it's going to be a little bit before we get some more bears in so we can get some maintenance done."
They don't anticipate more cubs arriving until the spring.
In the meantime, folks at ABR are renovating the property's oldest building to become the Red Roof Recovery Center.
"It's mostly for injured ones, and we learned the hard way last year that we do get some like that and we need to have a place that's better to keep them," Dodd said.
The two cages inside have an adjustable ceiling, so injured bears who UT veterinarians place on a temporary no-climb order can heal properly. The renovation also includes building an outdoor acclimation pen in back so healing bears can go outside.
Some maintenance work is also due on ABR's four half-acre wild enclosures.
"Bears are rough on stuff, so you can see where they have torn some of this blind apart," Blair said, gesturing to black fabric torn from the side of a chain link fence wall.
It's not just maintenance the ABR is doing. Blair will also be busy analyzing. ABR has put GPS collars on 43 bears since 2015, to track their survival, den habits and travel.
"From what we're seeing right now, they're doing well," Blair said, declining to give specifics on any one bear. "It's what we hoped for, what we suspected, but - like any other business - unless you do the research and you kind of crunch the data, you have no idea."
While the bears hibernate in the wild over the winter, Blair will be analyzing and repairing, getting ready for more cubs in the spring.
ABR is also currently working with the TWRA and the National Park Service to restart its fostering program, which had a short-lived run in ABR’s early days 20 years ago. The program aims to pair orphaned cubs with female bears in the wild, who will adopt them.
"ABR does wonderful work, there's no doubt," Blair said, "but we can't do what a wild female bear would do, and everyone knows that's the best case scenario, so that's what we're trying to get at."
In terms of wildfire impact on the newly released cubs' safety, Blair and Dodd said they're not worried, that bears can smell the fire well before it's within a dangerous range.
However, cubs that will be born in January could be in danger if fires continue to rage between then and April, when cubs will be strong enough to leave the den. Prior to that, they would be too weak to outrun any fire.
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