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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 1:21 EDT

American Black Bear

The American Black Bear (Ursus americanus), also known as the black bear or cinnamon bear, is the most common bear in North America.

The black bear can be found throughout much of North America, from northern Canada and Alaska south into Mexico and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This includes 39 of the 50 U.S. states and all Canadian provinces. Populations in east-central and the southern United States remain in the protected mountains and woodlands of parks and preserves. While there were most likely as many as two million black bears in North America once, the population declined to a low of 200,000 before rebounding in recent decades, partly due to conservation measures. It is currently estimated that there are more than 600,000 living today.

The black bear is about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long. Females weigh between 90 and 400 pounds (40 and 180 kg), while males weigh between 110 and 880 pounds (50 and 400 kg). Cubs typically weigh between 7 oz and 1 pound (200 and 450 g) at birth. The adult black bear has small eyes, rounded ears, a long snout, a large body, and a short tail. Generally these bears have shaggy black hair. However, the coat can vary in color depending on the subspecies: from white through chocolate brown, cinnamon brown, and blonde, found mostly west of the Mississippi River, to black in the East. Further adding to the confusion, black bears occasionally sport a slight white chest blaze on either side of the river.

Black bears are able to walk on their hind legs but usually stand or walk on all four legs. The black bear’s characteristic shuffle results from walking flat-footed, with the hind legs slightly longer than the front legs. Each paw has five strong claws used for tearing, digging, and climbing. One blow from a powerful front paw is enough to kill an adult deer.

Black bears prefer forested and shrubby areas but use wet meadows, high tidelands, ridge tops, burned areas, riparian areas, and avalanche chutes. They also frequent swampy hardwood and conifer forests. After emerging from their winter dens in spring, they seek southerly slopes at lower elevations for forage and move to northerly and easterly slopes at higher elevations as summer progresses. Black bears use dense cover for hiding and thermal protection, as well as for bedding. They climb trees to escape danger and use forested areas as travel corridors. Black bears hibernate during winter sometimes building dens in tree cavities, under logs, rocks, in banks, caves, or culverts, and in shallow depressions.

Black bears reach breeding maturity at about 4 or 5 years of age, and breed every 2 to 3 years. Black bears breed in the spring, usually in May and June, but the embryos do not begin to develop until the mother dens in the fall to hibernate through the winter months. However, if food was scarce and the mother has not gained enough fat to sustain herself during hibernation as well as produce cubs, the embryos do not develop.

Black bear cubs are usually born in January or February. They are blind when born, and twins are most common, though first-time mothers typically only have a single cub. By spring thaw, when the bears start leaving their dens, the cubs are fur-balls of energy, inquisitive and playful. They are weaned between July and September of their first year, and stay with the mother through the first full winter. They are usually independent by the second winter.

The survival of cubs is totally dependent on the skill of the mother in teaching them what to eat, where and how to find food, where to den, and when and where to seek shelter from heat or danger.

Black bears eat a wide variety of foods, relying most heavily on grasses, herbs, fruits, and mast. They also feed on carrion and insects such as

  • carpenter ants
  • yellow jackets
  • bees
  • termites

Black bears sometimes kill and eat small rodents and ungulate fawns.

Some common plant foods are listed below:

  • oak mast
  • hazel mast
  • mountain ash
  • tree cambium
  • dogwood
  • manzanita
  • kinnikinnick
  • cranberry
  • blueberry
  • huckleberry
  • raspberry
  • blackberry
  • rose hips
  • gooseberry
  • sarsaparilla
  • rhubarb
  • lupine
  • northern bedstraw
  • lousewort
  • Labrador tea
  • California coffeeberry
  • squawroot
  • dandelion
  • clover
  • thistle
  • black walnut
  • buffaloberry
  • lomatium
  • cowparsnip
  • pine nuts
  • chestnuts
  • grapes

Black bears also eat salmon and raid orchards, beehives, and crop fields. They pick from garbage dumps and trash bins of private homes. When their natural foods are scarce, black bears may occasionally prey on domestic sheep and pigs.

Predators include man, the brown bear, and other Black bears. Coyotes may prey on cubs.

Black bears are as much an important game species as they are the center of controversy across the continent. Because their behavior has been little understood, Black bears have been feared and hated. They have also been portrayed as harmless play toys by film and television. Their low reproductive rate and late sexual maturation make them vulnerable to over-harvest. Their active foraging habits and habitat encroachment by man have created man-bear conflicts.

Current legal protections

A major threat to the American black bear is widespread poaching to supply Asian markets with bear gall bladders and paws, considered to have medicinal value in China, Japan, and Korea. The demand for these parts also affects grizzly and polar bears. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (also known as CITES), a treaty among more than 120 nations, provides measures to curb illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products across international boundaries, helping to protect the black bear from poaching.

Black bears are abundant in much of the West while some Eastern populations are at critically low levels. Two subspecies found in the southeastern U.S., the Louisiana black bear and the Florida black bear, still face decline mainly due to habitat loss and degradation.

In 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Louisiana black bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, meaning it could become in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range in the foreseeable future. The American black bear also is protected by the Act in the affected states (Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas) due to its close resemblance to this subspecies. The Florida black bear is a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Miscellaneous

  • The sports teams of the University of Maine are known as Black Bears.
  • Ursus americanus kermodei, commonly known as the “spirit bear”, is a rare white (not albino) subspecies found in temperate rain forests on the Pacific northwest coast of North America. Native tradition credits these animals with supernatural powers.
  • Smokey Bear, mascot of the United States Forest Service is based on an actual black bear cub found in New Mexico.
  • The refusal of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to shoot a cornered black bear cub in Mississippi led to the invention of the teddy bear.
  • In August 2004, the New York Times reported that a wild black bear was found passed out after drinking about 36 cans of beer in Baker Lake, Washington, USA. The bear opened a camper’s cooler and used its claws and teeth to puncture the cans. It was found the bear selectively opened cans of Rainier Beer and left all Busch Beer unconsumed.
  • The largest Black Bear ever was one that had been hunted in Wisconsin in 1885. The reported weight was 802 pounds.
American Black Bear