- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chrodata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Carnivora
- Family: Ursidae
- Genus: Ursus
- Species: americanus
Scientific Name: Ursus americanus
IUCN Red List Status and Population
Least Concern, increasing population trend (Garshelis et al. 2016) 16 subspecies of black bear
Population: Total U.S. population (excluding Alaska) is greater than 300,000. In Alaska, it is estimated that between 100,000-200,000 individuals exist, although there are no reliable estimates. Predicted to have 850,000-950,000 in North America, and no population estimates exist for Mexican black bear (Garshelis et al. 2016).
*Note: According to the IUCN, population densities have been obtained by using mark-recapture techniques in order for state and province management of black bear populations (Garshelis et al. 2016).
Weight: 200-600 pounds (depends on sex, age, and season)
Length: 5 to 6 feet long
Lifespan: 15-25 years in the wild
About: Black bears are the most common bear in North America. They do not have to be black in color but vary in coat coloration depending on where they reside. They can range from blonde to brown, red to black and can even have white fur. Defenders of Wildlife describes Eastern populations to be mostly black, Western populations to have brown, cinnamon, and blond coloration, and white populations (glacier) of black bear found only in coastal British Columbia (“Black Bear” 2017).
Natural Behaviors: Black bears are solitary animals and roam an expansive territory. They do not protect their own territory from other bears. According to National Geographic, black bears can wander a 15-80 square mile home range. Their natural home range is solely dependent on food abundance, location, and the season of the area (“American Black Bear” 2017).
Black bears can live to be 30 years old in the wild, directly correlating with the quality of habitat and avoidance of humans.
Reproduction: A female bear reaches sexual maturity at 3 years old and can give birth to up to 4 cubs. Females can delay implantation of an embryo, depending on the amounts of fat they were able to store during the year. The purpose of this “Embryonic diapause” is to slow the gestation process, enabling the mother bear to ensure that the cub develops at the ideal time – where food abundance and environmental conditions are most beneficial to the survival of the cub. Mating occurs in the summer, and the embryo does not implant until late fall. If the female bear does not have enough fat storage, the embryo will not attach, and the female will not become pregnant that season.
Diet: Although part of Carnivora, black bears are omnivorous and eat a diet that consists of 90% plant-based material and 10% protein. They are opportunistic feeders and will forage for anything they can eat. This consists of grass material, roots, berries, insects, but bears will also eat fish and mammals such as deer and elk young. Black bears have curved claws that enable them to climb trees very well to search for food and avoid danger. They have an extreme sense of smell to find their food, which is 2,100 times greater than a human. Bears are frequently habituated to human food at campsites and rural homes, making them extremely dangerous. These bears become a nuisance and are often killed. A fed bear is a dead bear, and it is important to learn how to live peacefully with this magnificent species.
Their foraging for food begins in early spring, where their diet consists of insects and grasses. This time period is not for gaining weight, as the bears cannot break down the grass matter. It is used for a period to cleans the body and digestive tract since they have been denning all winter. This is called the “negative foraging period” (Cite Beckie’s bear book guide).
Food is typically not readily available to bears in marginal habitats, and bears start to become problems for people once they start looking around for easier meals. Nuisance bears are sometimes trapped and relocated once they become habituated to a human food source. Once they are trapped, wildlife officers place a green tag with an N (for nuisance) as well as give the bear an identical lip tattoo for identification. This process is extremely expensive and causes loss of important time and resources for wildlife agencies. Education of coexisting with wildlife is crucial to solve human-wildlife conflicts and protect both people and bears. If humans learn to share their territory with bears, the species will be able to thrive in their natural territory for generations to come. If living in bear territory, below are some safety tips and how to successfully share space with black bears.
Not True Hibernators: Black bears are not true hibernators, as they can wake up at any time during the winter. Their winter sleep is called torpor or “winter sleep,” in which a bear can sleep for up to 100 days without consuming any food, drinking water, or passing waste. Bear Trust International describes bears torpor as denning in the winter time, with their heart rate decreasing, metabolic rate and breathing rate slowing down, as well as reduced body temperature (“Do Bears Hibernate?” 2016).
Compared to true hibernators, a bear’s metabolic rate is significantly less depressed. Their body temperature does not decrease dramatically, but only by about 10 degrees. True hibernators include a variety of animals such as ground squirrels, rodent species, some snakes, many insectivores, monotremes (includes the platypus), mouse lemurs, and some bat species (“Do Bears Hibernate?” 2016). During their hibernation, their body temperature decreases to almost freezing, their heart rate and breathing rate decrease significantly, and they do not wake up unless to feed and to rid waste, which happens every one to two weeks.
A bear has specific fat cells that supply the animal with the calories and water needed during the winter months. Their muscle and organ tissue break down to supply the protein, and bears are able to restore that protein (unlike humans). They also use urea (a component of urine) through nitrogen cycling, which builds new proteins, maintaining their muscle and organ tissue during their sleeping period. This is truly an amazing adaptation for these large animals to survive the harsh winter months. They can den for up to 6 months, with mothers emerging last with new cubs for the feeding season.
Habitat Types: Forests, mountains, swamps, alpine zone, and beaches.
Historic Home Ranges: Occupied all forested regions in North America. Mountainous regions of Mexico.
Current Home Ranges: Range from North America to Canada (most historic home range besides heavily farmed areas) and United States (40 states) to Mexico (very few populations).
Black Bear History in AR: Arkansas was unofficially called the “Bear State” during the 19th century. The area along the river in Independence County is called Oil Trough, due to its abundance of wooden troughs to render bear lard. During this time period, bears were harvested for their fat. This fat was used in many household items such as soap, candles, hair products, insect repellent, and oil lamps. Its multi-purpose gave it more value than the meat and hide of the bear, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture (Stith 2017). The consumer value of bear meat, hide, and fat caused an increase of bear hunting, leading to the overexploitation of the animal. Their pelts were sold for $2, bear oil for $1 a gallon, and meat for $10 per 100 pounds. Excess hunting brought bears to the brink of extirpation (removing completely) from Arkansas. The hunting season was closed in 1927, with only approximately 25-50 bears left, located in the White River National Wildlife Refuge in Southeastern Arkansas’ Delta region (Stith 2017).
It wasn’t until 1958, that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission began a program to restore black bears to Arkansas. Within a 10-year period, 254 bears were translocated from Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada. They were moved to the Ozark and Ouachita National Forests of northern and western Arkansas. Today, there are approximately 3,000 bears in those areas. This translocation is one of the most successful restorations of a large carnivore and now support a healthy bear hunting season in the area.
Why Black Bears Matter
History: Being heavily prosecuted in the 1900’s, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species states that black bear populations had reached an extreme low (Garshelis et al. 2016). Once greater state and provincial protections were initiated, populations began to recover. In the late 1980’s, rapid growth occurred due to increased protection of the species (Garshelis et al. 2016). By 1999, black bear populations seemed to be stable and 60% of Canadian and U.S. provinces and states reported an increase in black bear populations (Garshelis et al. 2016).
Key Safety Tips
Black Bear Safety: There are many misconceptions about what to do when encountering a black bear in their natural environment. Preventative measures are crucial to avoid confrontation and keeping both people and animals safe. Below you will find a list of bear safety essentials!
Bear Safety Essentials
- Respect all wild animals, they are all dangerous. Never feed a wild animal, regardless of its size or species. A fed bear is a dead bear.
- Never approach a wild animal.
- Be defensive, do not surprise a bear or other wildlife.
- Learn about bears and signs on how to identify their habitat.
- Anticipate and avoid bear encounters. Know what to do if you encounter a bear.
- Each bear encounter is unique, and there are no hard fast rules to be applied in this complex situation. You are ultimately responsible for yours and others safety.
The Most Dangerous Bears:
- Bears habituated to human food (DON’T FEED BEARS!). Once they find a food source, they will keep returning. A nuisance bear is often euthanized because it becomes a danger to people.
- Females with cubs. DO NOT approach baby bears or interact with them. A defensive mother is nearby.
- A bear defending a fresh kill or food source. Keep your distance from a feeding bear.
- Bears run as fast as a horse, up to 30 mph, both uphill and downhill.
- Black bears are great climbers and can easily scale a tree.
- They can smell 2,100 times better than a human and also have excellent hearing and sight.
- Every bear defends its personal territory, and that space depends on the bear and the situation.
- A mother bear will always protect their cubs and may chase them up a tree and protect them from the bottom of the tree. Females are easily provoked when defending cubs.
Visiting Bear Country:
- Practicing prevention to ensure safety for humans and wildlife.
- Always be alert of your surroundings. Recognize animal tracks, scat, and signs of territory marking such as scratch marks, digging signs, broken branches, or animal dens.
- Make yourself known by making loud noises. Talk with friends, clap, sign, or wear bells. It is never a good idea to sneak up or startle a wild animal.
- Hike and stay together in groups, keep small children with adults.
- Hike and explore in open areas where it is easier to avoid bears, and for them to avoid you.
- Keep dogs on a leash to avoid altercation between them and a black bear. Pets can easily disturb a bear. An unleashed dog can attract a bear back to you.
- There is no minimum safe distance from a black bear, the further away the better.
- Use a long-range zoom or photo lens to get pictures.
- Photographing bears can be dangerous at a close distance.
- Stay away from dead animals, there may be a predator or bear nearby
Young Children should never:
- Run or play in densely wooded areas.
- Play unsupervised.
- Make animal sounds when hiking or playing in the woods.
- Approach bears, especially cubs.
- Pet, feed, or pose for a photo with a bear, even if they appear tame.
Encountering a Bear:
- Remain in the vehicle, do not get out to take a picture. Keep the windows rolled up, and do not stop in the middle of the road to view the bear.
- Do not impede the bear from crossing the road.
- If you encounter cubs that are alone, the sow is nearby and most likely ran to safety. Leave the cubs alone and the mother will be back for them.
- If you run into a bear, stay calm and DO NOT RUN away. Slowly back away from the bear and leave. Always face the same way, keep talking and making loud noises, and do not look the bear in the eye.
- If the bear stands up, talk in a normal voice and wave your arms slowly. Shouting HEY BEAR loudly and calmly, while you slowly back away from the animal.
- Report any unusual bear activity, whether an aggressive bear or one that approaching people to a wildlife officer.
- “American Black Bear”. National Graphic Society 2017. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/a/american-black-bear/
- “Black Bear”. Defenders of Wildlife 2017. https://defenders.org/black-bear/basic-facts
- “Do Bears Hibernate?”. Bear Trust International 2016. https://beartrust.org/do-bears-hibernate
- Garshelis, D.L., Scheick, B.K., Doan-Crider, D.L., Beecham, J.J. & Obbard, M.E. 2016. Ursus americanus.
- The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T41687A114251609. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T41687A45034604.en.
- Stith, Matthew M. “Black Bears”. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture; University of Arkansas, Fayetteville 2017. http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=5424
- “Threats to Black Bear”. Defenders of Wildlife 2017. https://defenders.org/black-bear/threats