American Black Bear

American Black Bear
The American Black Bear is the smallest and most common bear in North America.

The smallest and most common bear on the North American continent is the American Black Bear. Growing to an average 5 feet in length and weighing between 200-300 pounds (some weighing as much as 500 pounds), these bears are also among the most pursued by hunters. Not all black bears are completely black however, cinnamon, brown, and even blonde are very common.

Home range of the American Black Bear

Because of it's very adaptive nature, black bear distribution originally spanned the entire North American continent. However, due to over hunting of these bears throughout the late 1800's and early 1900's the black bear can now only be found in about 15 U.S. states, most all Canadian provinces, and some central regions of Mexico.

Black Bear by the Numbers

black bears
Black bears prefer large forested areas with a lot of underbrush.

Because of the reclusive nature of these bears, estimating this population can be a very difficult task. Additionally, bears can travel great distances in search of food, sometimes crossing agency and political boundaries, making the task even more daunting. It is estimated that at the time of the first American settlers the population of black bears was at around 500,000. Today that number is said to be much higher, closer to 700,000 bears throughout the current home range, despite it being much smaller.

Black Bear Behavior

Black bears can be found in a wide variety of habitats across their home ranges. Although these bears prefer larger forested areas with a lot of underbrush, they have also been documented on ridgetops, in tidelands, agricultural fields, swamps, and even the dryer sage habitats of the far western states. Black bears typically hibernate in dens throughout the winter; finding shelter in hollowed out tree cavities, under larger logs and rocks, caves, and some shallow depressions. The bear will usually not eat, defecate, or urinate during hibernation. However, black bears do remain at least somewhat active, female bears even give birth and nurse their young during this time.

Once spring arrives, black bears will emerge from their long sleep to venture out in search of food. Most commonly the carrion from winter kills, including deer, moose, elk, and smaller animals. Along mountainous home ranges, these bears can be found searching the southern slopes at lower elevations, where the sun will remove snowfall amounts at a faster rate.

black bear diet
The black bear diet mostly consists of grasses and forbs in the spring, mast and shrub born fruits in the summer and hard and soft masts throughout the fall.

Black Bear Reproduction

Female black bears reach breeding maturity at 3 or 4 years of age and can breed about every 2 years. In poorer environments, females may not reach breeding maturity until 5 or 6 years, even skipping some years' breeding cycles entirely. Male bears reach sexual maturity at about the same age, but may not win breeding rights because of size. Similar to most mammals, bears often fight for breeding rights to be accepted by females.

Black bears generally mate during the summer from mid-June through mid-August; depending on the region. Embryos however, do not begin to develop until fall when the female dens. The actual embryo development is about 60 days, although average gestation periods last 7 to 8 months. If the mother did not store adequate fat and protein amounts to sustain her through the long winter, and hibernation, the embryos will not develop.

Black bear cubs are generally born throughout January and February. At less than 1 pound, they are completely helpless when born. Average litters produce between 2 or 3 cubs at a time. Although it is not uncommon to see litters of 4 or more. The cubs remain with their mother for the first 1 1/2 years of life. It is at this time the female will go into estrous again.

Black bear cub survival is completely dependant on the mother. She must show them how to forage, where they must den, and where to hide in case of danger. Black bear mortality rates are often high.

Black Bear Diet

Black bears primarily consume grasses and forbs throughout spring, mast and shrub born fruits in summer, and mixtures of hard and soft masts throughout fall. Although bears can be opportunistic predators, most animal consumption is in the form of carrion. A small portion of their diet also consists of colonial insects and beetle species.

Diets of black bears is generally high in carbohydrates, consequently lower in protein and fats. However these bears generally prefer foods containing higher proteins and fats. As black bears emerge in spring from their winter dens, they tend to continue to loose weight with food scarcity. During these periods, they continue to survive partly off the body fat that was built before winter the previous year. With summer, and the many diverse food groups that will flourish in bear ranges, recovery from the energy and fat loss from the previous year is important to their survival. Black bears will begin accumulating large fat reserves again as fall approaches, primarily from fish, fruits, and mast.

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