American black bears are the most common species of bear found in 40 of the 50 United States and Provinces of Canada, except for Prince Edward Island. “Black” bears can be black, dark brown, blue-black, brown, cinnamon and even white, albeit very rarely (this is known as the “spirit bear” by indigenous people of Western Canada). Eastern populations are usually black in color. Some subspecies, like the Louisiana black bear, are protected as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), whereas, most are not.
Height: 2-3 feet (at shoulder)
Length: 5-6 feet
Mass: 200-600 lbs.
Life Span: 18-20 years
American black bears are omnivorous. They are opportunistic eaters. The majority of their diet includes grasses, roots, berries, and insects, but they will also eat fish and carrion. Black bears are adaptable and live primarily in forested areas, including mountainous terrain with an abundance of fruits, nuts, and other dense vegetation. Black bears occasionally kill young deer or moose calves. They are opportunistic foragers and unfortunately, quickly develop a taste for human foods and garbage, due to high-calorie content and sometimes ease of obtaining it. Bears who become attracted to human food at campsites, cabins, or rural homes can become dangerous and often are killed. Please don’t feed the bears!
Black bears have short, non-retractable claws that give them excellent tree-climbing ability. They are solitary animals, except for mothers and cubs. Bears usually forage alone but will feed in groups if there is an abundance of food available. In winter, the bears spend the season dormant in their dens, relying on the body fat they have built up by eating during summer and fall to sustain themselves. Their dens can be in caves, burrows, or other sheltered spots, or even at times, in tree holes. Black bears hibernate depending on climate conditions and availability of food during the winters. In regions of warmer weather and an abundance of available food, bears may not hibernate, or only briefly. Males might inhabit a 15- to 80-square-mile home range, females less. Females give birth and stay in their dens throughout the winter. Black bears tend to shuffle along slowly, although, they can briefly run at speeds of around 25 mph to 31 mph. They are good swimmers, and will readily hunt for fish. Black bears have an exceptional sense of smell, which can lead them to food in garbage bins and outdoor storage facilities from far away. In developed areas such as National Parks and well-established camping areas, they are even capable of breaking into cars.
Range and Population:
The American black bear is spread throughout North America, from Canada to Mexico and in at least 40 of the United States. Once, they occupied nearly all of the forested regions of North America, but in the U.S. they are now restricted to wooded areas less occupied by humans. In Canada, black bears still inhabit most of their historic range except for farming areas of the central plains. In Mexico, black bears inhabited mountainous regions of the northern states but are now limited to a very small population. About 600,000 black bears exist in North America. In the United States, the estimate is around 300,000 individuals. The Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolu) and the Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus) are subspecies with small populations. The Louisiana black bear is federally listed as a threatened species.
Gestation: 63-70 days
Litter size: 1-6, average 2 cubs
Mating season: Summer
Female black bears give birth to the helpless, blind cubs in mid-winter and will nurse them in their den until spring when all emerge in search of food. Cubs remain with their very protective mother for about two years. Should the young die, the female may reproduce again after only one year. Female black bears will not mate while rearing young, so they may only produce six litters of cubs during her lifetime. The lifespan of a black bear can average18 to 20 years. The oldest documented wild bear lived to 31 years. During their lives black bears can suffer from arthritis, cavities, fractures from falls, broken and worn teeth, bites from other animals and also gunshots.
Threats to Black Bears:
Habitat loss due to human development is a major threat to their survival. The leading cause of bear deaths is vehicle accidents. Between 125 – 175 bears per year, have been killed by vehicles over the last 5 years. Yosemite NP reported 37 bear deaths in 2015 alone! Whether due to human encroachment on their natural habitat, crop cultivation, deforestation, or shooting for protection of property and trophy hunting, bears suffer greatly at the hands of the human population. Most mortality of bears goes unnoticed by the lay-public, or may just fall on apathetic ears. Rarely, do bears die of natural causes.