Black Bear | Ursus americanus

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Black Bear

Ursus americanus

When humans first entered North America some 15,000 years ago, both grizzly and black bears inhabited every corner of the continent, roaming from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Mexico to the northern edges of the continent. For native Americans, black bears provided a valuable source of thick hides for clothing and shelter, rich meat, and sweet fat. Early American settlers found black bears in abundance when they arrived, but the bears represented more than a food source to them – they represented threats to their families, livestock, crops, and future. Settlers did not just kill bears with their guns. Cutting, burning, and clearing changed the wooded lands into open farm fields and pastures. As the wave of humans expanded, black bears lost much of their native habitat, restricting their populations to some of the more mountainous, swampy, and rugged regions of North America.

The few black bears that remained in the mid-1800s came under the pressure of unregulated market hunting for their hides, meat, and fat. Due to their low reproductive rate, bears recover more slowly from population losses than other North American mammals. By 1900, black bear numbers dwindled in many areas of the country, nearing the point of extinction. By the mid-1900s, hunting seasons became heavily controlled or closed altogether and bear restoration programs began in some states. Meanwhile, the forests that had been cut and burned decades before began to grow again in many areas. As their wild habitat started returning, so did the black bears. Beginning in the late 1980s, through the start of the twenty-first century, black bear numbers have increased annually across their range.

Not all black bears are black — their fur can range in color from pure white to a cinnamon color to very dark brown or black. Most populations have a mixture of these colors, including the pure white form which is found in some individuals in the island archipelago in southern British Columbia (Kermode Island). This white coloration is caused by inheriting a recessive gene for coat color from both the mother and the father who could, themselves, both be black. A genetic reason results in the light grey coat color called the “blue” or glacier bear in southeastern Alaska.

Regardless of these genetic variants, most of the bears in any region are black in color. Some bears have a white patch on their chests. They have a short, inconspicuous tail, longish ears, a relatively straight profile from nose to forehead, and small, dark eyes.

Black bears in some areas where food is scarce are much smaller than in other areas where food is abundant. On average, adults are approximately 3 feet tall at the shoulder, and their length from nose to tail is about 75 inches. All bears, including black bears, are sexually dimorphic — meaning adult males are much larger than adult females. A large male black bear can exceed 800 lbs., though most weigh less than 300 lbs., while females seldom exceed 200 lbs.

American black bears are omnivorous, meaning they will eat a variety of things, including both plants and meat. Their diet includes roots, berries, meat, fish, insects, larvae, grass, and other succulent plants. They are able to kill adult deer and other hoofed wildlife but most commonly are only when these are very young. Bears are very attracted to human garbage, livestock food or pet food, or other human-associated foods including fruit trees. Bears using these human-associated foods can quickly become habituated to them and this commonly results in the bears being killed as nuisances. This is true for beehives as well as bears are attracted to honey. Black bears can live up to 30 years in the wild, but most die before they are in their early 20s.

Because of their versatile diet, black bears can live in a variety of habitat types. They inhabit both coniferous and deciduous forests as well as open alpine habitats. They typically do not occur on the Great Plains or other wide-open areas except along river courses where there is riparian vegetation and trees. They can live just about anywhere they can find food, but largely occur where there are trees. The American black bear’s range covers most of the North American continent. They are found in Alaska, much of Canada, and the United States, and extend as far south as northern Mexico.

Black bears are typically solitary creatures except for family (a female with cubs) groups and during mating season, which peaks in May and June. Following fertilization, the embryo doesn’t implant in the uterus until fall at the time of den entrance. Delayed implantation allows the female to not waste fat reserves and energy in sustaining a pregnancy that would have little chance of success because her condition is too poor. Females give birth to cubs every other year if food sources are sufficiently plentiful. In years when food supplies are scarce a female may skip an additional year or two between litters. The cubs are born in the mother’s winter den and will den with her again the following winter. The following spring when the cubs are 1 ½ years old, cubs and females will separate; the female will breed again. A black bear litter can be 1-5 cubs, but most commonly litters are 2 cubs.

Fast Facts

  • Though black bears have not reclaimed all of their original range across North America, their populations have rebounded to an estimated 600,000-800,000 bears in 37 states and Canada.
  • Black bear hunting record books use skull size to determine record book status. The biggest bear skulls seem to come from places like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania (the number one state in modern times), southern California, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Manitoba. A few come from Alaska, mostly Prince of Wales and Kuiu islands, and coastal British Columbia, as well as northern Alberta. Fast Fact: Black bears have relatively short claws which enable them to climb trees. Unlike cats, the claws are non-retractable.
Colton's bear.
Contributor, Colton Choate with a giant black bear.