ELKINS, W.Va. - Only an occasional peep escaped from the cardboard box a group of people had carried through knee-deep snow up a steep mountainside in Randolph County.
Inside the box was an orphaned bear cub, and the group's mission was to find her a foster family. They found one asleep in a hole about 3,300 feet up Cheat Mountain.
The cub was recently found along a state highway near the Braxton-Webster county line.
A woman picked the bear up when she found it wandering the wilderness without its mother, which is the wrong thing to do, said Colin Carpenter, a wildlife biologist with the state Division of Natural Resources.
Carpenter is the state leader for the black bear study project.
The orphaned cub should have been left where it was seen because it was likely near its den, Carpenter said.
"The mother usually comes back and gets the cub," he said. "In most cases they do not truly abandon their cub."
Be that as it may, the cub was given to DNR officials, who had to find a foster family for the housecat-sized baby animal.
Fortunately, bears make excellent adoptive parents, Carpenter said. He and others typically have to find homes for a few cubs a year, he said.
"But we don't want people picking up bear cubs when they find them in the woods," he said. "They should leave them alone."
The DNR officers knew of a bear that was living in the Elkins area that would likely have cubs of her own.
The sow, named Patty by biologists, had been fitted with a tracking collar a few years before as part of the overall bear population and survival management study, Carpenter said.
So, Steve Wilson, a wildlife biologist with the DNR's Elkins office, tracked her down to the den where she was spending the winter with her three small cubs. Carpenter and Wilson figured the bear wouldn't mind having a fourth little one placed in the den with her.
On Thursday, the biologists made the trek to the den carrying the orphan cub in a cardboard box with air holes punched in the side.
The baby, which won't be named for a year, took the ride up the mountain in stride.
The sow was found sleeping in a den that could have been easily missed. It was nothing more than a hole in the ground from a toppled tree's root ball.
"It would have been real easy to walk right by it," Wilson said with a smile.
When most people think of a bear's den, they think of a cave, but that is almost never the case, he said.
Bears typically live in small holes in the ground like Patty or in a cleft in a rock face. Some even make a den under a treetop that has been knocked over for whatever reason.
Simply put, they'll live in just about anything that offers concealment and some protection from the weather.
The cub drop
Wilson left the small party that accompanied him, including volunteers who would help him take the sow's vitals, as he approached the den a short distance from the path.
In his hand were two tranquilizer darts that would be delivered using a type of CO2 gun.
Wilson wasn't too worried about waking the sow because she was sleeping through the winter and the bears are typically very groggy during this time of year, he said.
But he had no intentions of being careless, and stretched a net across the entrance to catch the bear if she bolted.
He carefully poked his head into the den to see if he had a clear shot at the sow before shooting her with one dart.
Ten minutes later, she was out.
Wilson then climbed halfway into the den to take hold of Patty's collar. She was pulled from the den onto the ground outside.
Wilson, 60, has done this duty more times than he can count over the past 30 years but has never been attacked.
"But I grabbed hold of a bear once that I thought was drugged, and it wasn't," he added. "That's when I got bit."
"I just got a few stitches," he said with a shrug.
Had he missed with the dart and Patty was still awake, he said he could have just remained on the ground in the den.
"They're not very aggressive," he said. "She probably would have just walked right over top of me to get out."
After she was pulled from the den, her teeth were checked and a blood sample was taken. She weighed in at about 190 pounds, which is a "good-sized" sow, Wilson said.
"She was well over 200 pounds when she went into the den," Carpenter said.