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Black Bear

Black Bear

Ursus americanus

Status: Not Listed

Classification: Mammal

Description

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 (Kermodi Island). This white black bear (called a spirit bear, revered by Native Americans) is caused by a recessive gene from both the mother and the father. Genes can also result in the light gray coat color of the blue bear, or glacier bear, in southeastern Alaska.

Despite 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. There are several ways to tell a black bear from a grizzly bear. Black bears and grizzly bears can both have a wide variety of colors and sizes, but most commonly in areas where both species occur, black bears are smaller and darker than grizzly bears. Black bears have longer and less rounded ears and a more straight profile from forehead to nose compared to grizzly bears. Grizzly bears have larger shoulder humps and a more dished-in facial profile and much longer front claws that are evident in the tracks.

Black bears in some areas where food is scarce are much smaller than in other areas where food is abundant. Typically adults are three 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 600 pounds in weight, while females seldom exceed 200 pounds.

Range

The American black bear's range covers most of the North American continent. They are found in Alaska, much of Canada and the contiguous United States, and extend as far south as northern Mexico. 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 don't 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.

Diet

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 able to kill deer, elk, moose, and other hoofed animals when the prey are very young. They are able to kill livestock, especially sheep. Bears are very attracted to human garbage, livestock food or pet food, or other human-associated foods like 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 bee hives as well, as bears are very attracted to honey.

Life History

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. This process of delayed implantation occurs in all bear species and allows the female bear’s body to physiologically “assess” her condition before implantation occurs and the period of gestation leading to the birth of cubs really begins. 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 one and a half years old, the cubs and female will separate and the female will breed again. A black bear litter can have one to five cubs, but most commonly litters contain two cubs. Black bears can live up to 30 years in the wild, but most die before they are in their early 20s.

Conservation

The American black bear is not currently a species of conservation concern and even the formerly listed black bear of Florida and Louisiana is now increasing. Habitats in western Texas, from which black bears were extirpated, are now being recolonized.

Conservation efforts for black bears have been effective and, in most areas, black bears are increasing and can sustain managed sport hunting. In areas with human populations, this can cause conflicts because bears are very attracted to human foods and refuse, as well as to livestock and livestock foods. Since bears are large and strong animals, many people fear them and resent the damage they can cause. The key to successful coexistence between humans and bears is to recognize that it is no longer possible for either species to occupy all habitats, but that where co-occupancy is possible and desirable, humans must be responsible for the welfare of the bear population. Wild areas with little human footprint will remain the most important habitat for bears, but peaceful coexistence can occur in the urban-wildland interface as long as humans take the necessary steps to assure that the relationship remains a positive one.

Fun Fact

Black bears have relatively short claws, which enable them to climb trees. Unlike cats, the claws are non-retractable.

Sources

Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology

San Diego Natural History Museum

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

ZooGoer, Friends of the National Zoo

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