By Tony Martins

Historically the American Black Bear, Ursus americanus, was found in forested lands throughout the United States and Canada, and south into Mexico. During European colonization of eastern North America, black bears were hunted for their meat, fat and fur by both settlers and Native Americans. As human populations expanded to the south and west, black bears were hunted extensively by planters and ranchers with the intent of eliminating or severely reducing their numbers to limit damage to crops and livestock. This purposeful over-hunting extended well into the 20th century, with many states and provinces paying a bounty for bears killed. As a result, black bears were extirpated from many eastern and mid-western states. Slowly over the next 70 years, governmental jurisdictions came to recognize a need to protect the black bear as a big game species, and conservation movements began. These included implementation of hunting regulations, with enforcement efforts by agency personnel, and cooperation from conservation-minded hunters. Today, black bears inhabit 41 U.S. states and 11 Canadian provinces and territories, as well as 8 states in northern Mexico, and their numbers and range have increased over the past two decades. The lower 48 states and Canada boast similar populations, approaching one half-million each, while Alaska holds an unknown number of black bears, with population “guestimates” as high as 250,000.

Taxonomists recognize 16 sub-species of Ursus americanus (U.a.), with half of these resident in British Columbia. These are listed below alphabetically by sub-species, with geographical distribution:

  • Olympic black bear – U.a. altifrontalis – Pacific N.W. coast from central British Columbia through N. California & inland to N. Idaho.
  • New Mexico black bear – U.a. amblyceps – New Mexico & E. Arizona into N. Mexico / W. Texas / Colorado & S.E. Utah.
  • Eastern black bear – U.a. americanus – E. Montana to Atlantic coast / Alaska S. & E. through Canada & S. to Texas.
  • California black bear – U.a. californiensis – Mountainous S. California north through the Central Valley to S. Oregon.
  • Queen Charlotte black bear – U.a. carlottae – Queen Charlotte Islands, B.C. & Alaska.
  • Cinnamon bear – U.a. cinnamomum – Idaho, W. Montana & Wyoming / E. Washington & Oregon / N.E. Utah.
  • Glacier bear (Blue Bear) – U.a. emmonsil – S.E. Alaska.
  • Mexican black bear – U.a. eremicus – N.E. Mexico & U.S. borderlands with Texas.
  • Florida black bear – U.a. floridanus – Florida, S. Georgia & Alabama.
  • Newfoundland black bear – U.a. hamiltoni – Newfoundland.
  • Kermode (Spirit Bear) – U.a. kermodei – Central coast of British Columbia.
  • Louisiana black bear – U.a. luteolus – Louisiana, E. Texas & S. Mississippi.
  • West Mexico black bear – U.a. machetes – North-central Mexico.
  • Kenai black bear – U.a. pemiger – Keni Peninsula, Alaska.
  • Dall black bear – U.a. pugnax – Alexander Archipelago, Alaska.
  • Vancouver black bear – U.a. vancouveri – Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

The black bear has played an important role in American folklore as well as Native American culture. For decades, school children were told the heartwarming story of the little bear cub that was tied to a tree by a hunting guide for President Theodore Roosevelt to shoot. When “Teddy” refused to shoot in disgust and political cartoons subsequently featured the President and his little bear, the teddy bear was created by opportunistic toymakers. In reality, the President’s guide Holt Collier had cornered a large black bear that had killed one of his dogs, and beat it savagely. When Roosevelt arrived at the site with a gang of reporters on his heels, he recognized a great chance to make a favorable impression on the American people. Turning his back after famously refusing to shoot the prostrate bear, he ordered that the animal be put out of its misery.

Behaviorists report that bears are among the first animals that children learn to recognize, but bear folklore is confusing because it is based on caricatures. From the loveable teddy bears and Winnie-the-Pooh, to kindly Smokey the Bear, these characters contrast sharply from the snarling, ferocious savages depicted on magazine covers and in stories portraying the beasts as villains. Unfortunately for black bears, this literary demonizing of bears in general rarely separates this relatively benign species from the great bears like the grizzly. One tale from Native American folklore says the black bear was created by the Great Spirit, while the grizzly was created by the Evil Spirit. Due to its white color and rarity the Kermode Black Bear, or “Spirit Bear” is revered in the culture of Native Americans, symbolizing peace and harmony, particularly in British Columbia where it is the official provincial mammal. According to legend, the master of the universe created one white bear for every ten black bears as a reminder of hardships during the ice age, when a cold blanket of white covered the planet.

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Mother Kermode Black Bear with white cub.

Habitat, Forage and Movement

American black bears are primarily forest dwelling animals (both temperate and boreal), but they also range into subtropical areas (Florida and Mexico), and even the subarctic. They live at elevations ranging from timberline limits around 12,000 feet down to sea level, inhabiting a remarkable diversity of ecosystems – from dry southwestern scrub forests to Louisiana swamps, and Alaskan rainforests to the treeless tundra of Labrador. Between these extremes they are most often found in a variety of deciduous and coniferous forests. Each area provides a different menu of foodstuffs to sustain its black bear population, but these animals will often leave their conventional habitats in search of food and water. Their penchant for roaming and traversing large territories often leads to conflict with humans in developed regions. Farms, gardens and orchards, as well as untended trash, garbage and campsites are often targeted by marauding black bears.

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Black bears are omnivorous, and opportunistic feeders. They consume herbaceous vegetation, grasses, buds and fleshy roots, a variety of berries, fruits and nuts, insects (particularly ants and termites) including eggs, larvae, pupae and adults, and vertebrates ranging from fish to mammals, including carrion in addition to their own kills. A variety of agricultural products are often included in black bear diets. Standing corn, oats and wheat, as well as apples and honey are favorites. Other human-related foods include garbage, pet food and birdseed, which highlights the remarkable ability of black bears to vary their diet according to environmental circumstances. This ability enables them to persist in a diversity of habitats, including highly fragmented and minimally forested areas in close proximity to human developments.

A reliable source of fall mast is an important factor that enables black bears to build fat reserves in preparation for winter. In eastern North America, oak acorns and beechnuts have become their main fall foods since historic blights have all but eliminated chestnuts in this region. Where oak and beech are uncommon or absent, hazelnuts, pine nuts, madrone, mansanita, huckleberries, buffalo berries or other fruits, crop remnants and occasionally meat are mainstays of the fall diet. In the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, various cacti like prickly pear and succulents like yucca are important food sources, especially during drought.

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Note the fresh claw marks on the aspen tree in the foreground, identifying the territory of a resident black bear.

Black bear boars establish territories of up to 100 square miles, and will defend a portion of that territory from all other bears. Sows have much smaller territories, which they share with juveniles, but defend from adults. Most (but not all) black bears spend winter months hibernating in a den. This may be a small cave dug into a hillside, or the cavity in a hollow tree or brush pile. Black bears may also winter in culverts under roads, or under foundations of abandoned buildings. One was famously found hibernating in the basement of an occupied home in New Jersey! Hibernation can last for as long as 7 months in the northernmost portions of the black bear’s range, but it’s typically much shorter in southern areas. In fact, where food is available year-round in the warmer southern climes, black bears may remain active all winter.

Social Interaction and Breeding Behavior

Sows stay with their cubs for about 18 months. From one to six days before they are ready to mate in late May or June sows stop traveling with their yearling cubs and force them to set out on their own. Boars are solitary animals, living alone except during breeding season. Black bears often congregate in prime feeding areas including garbage dumps, but they seem to ignore each other. They are usually silent, but make a variety of grunts in amiable situations, and loud blowing noises when frightened. Clacking or “popping” the teeth is also a sign of fright. Black bears possess a resonant human-like “voice” and can use it to express a range of emotions, from fear to pleasure. Cubs separated from their mothers make a muffled sounding whine, and sows may signal their cubs by stomping their feet. And contrary to popular belief, black bears do not threaten by growling as falsely portrayed in movies.

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Photo courtesy of Angie Denny, Table Mountain Outfitters, Cheyenne, WY.

Boars will travel great distances searching for the scent trail of a sow in heat. Sows often mate with more than one boar and, if two boars of similar size find a receptive sow, they will fight for breeding rights. Breeding usually occurs early in summer, but may extend into August in eastern deciduous forests. Sows mate every other year, and give birth to a litter of 1-5 cubs if food sources are plentiful. When food supplies are scarce, a sow may skip an additional year or two between litters. Cubs are born in the mother’s winter den, and will den with her again the following winter.

A remarkable process called delayed fertilization occurs in all bear species. Following fertilization in summer, the resulting embryo floats in the uterus and doesn’t implant until fall hibernation begins. Through this process the sow’s physiological condition is “assessed” and implantation is prevented if her condition is poor. Thus, energy and fat reserves will not be wasted in sustaining a pregnancy that has little chance of going full term with a successful outcome.

Hunting Opportunities

The black bear trails only the whitetail deer as North America’s most popular game animal. Although success rates for bear hunters are much lower than deer hunters, it’s estimated that as many as 50,000 black bears are legally harvested annually, with roughly 20-30,000 taken in the U.S. and 20,000 in Canada. Black bears are hunted (somewhere) from the time they leave their dens in spring until the winter chill is cast. Spring bears are favored by hunters because their fur is best at this time, but unfortunately, spring bear hunting is now limited to the western states and provinces. Spring bear seasons have been closed in a number of states due to misinformation, apathy, activism and political pressure. With fewer bears harvested from stable or increasing populations, bear damage complaints and bear-human encounters have increased significantly in many of these areas. This leads to costly relocation efforts, and the ultimate destruction of a large percentage of the “problem” bears. Thus, many affected jurisdictions are once again considering spring hunting to control increasing black bear populations.

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Photo courtesy of Trent Penrod, The Burly Bear, Pinetop, AZ (Thumb photo courtesy of Trent Penrod as well).

Alaska, Idaho and Montana are the top states for spring hunting, while Arizona, Utah, Oregon and Washington also have quality spring hunts for black bear. Western Canada is probably the best location for top-notch spring bear hunting for big prime-time black bears, however. British Columbia leads the way, harvesting 4000+ black bears annually, while Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba also offer excellent hunting and high success rates. A guide or outfitting service is required for most provincial non-resident and non-resident/alien black bear hunting in Canada.

At the time of this writing, 30 of the 41 states with black bear populations offer fall hunts, lead by Pennsylvania where a remarkable 2000 bears are harvested annually during the two-day hunt in November.  Twenty-five states offer over-the-counter tags, while a few states issue black bear permits through lottery drawing only. Fall black bear hunting opportunities are greater today than ever before, but these vary widely from state to state. Some states have very short fall bear seasons, some have limited tags available on a first-come-first-served basis, and some have other considerations like harvest objectives that end the season when they are reached – so it pays to do some homework. While it’s not surprising that more hunters are encountering black bears while hunting other species like deer and elk than ever before, it is surprising that so many of these hunters are not prepared for this potential “bonus” opportunity.

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Photo Courtesy of Brett Britton, Brushy Canyon Ranch Raton, NM.

Hunting Tactics & Equipment

Three techniques account for most of the black bears taken by hunters, but one additional method warrants mention. The preferred hunting technique usually depends on the type of weapon used, terrain and most importantly, method-of-take regulations for the area hunted. Where permitted, baiting is the most widely used hunting method. Bait sites are setup in areas where bears have been feeding naturally as indicated by their droppings, or where well used trails converge. Bait is located upwind of a good hiding spot or treestand, and often placed in a steel drum anchored in place, but shallow pits dug in the earth and old tree stumps are also popular for bait placement. Items like meat scraps, sweet corn, oats mixed with molasses, pastries, melons and of course honey and manufactured attractants are popular for baiting. Bears will typically arrive on-site during the last two hours of daylight, so it’s important to be on-stand by early afternoon. Avoid bait sites in early morning, as bears near the site will be spooked on approach, and probably not return that day.

Although some states like Colorado have outlawed hunting over bait as well as the use of hounds, several states and Indian reservations allow the use of dogs that are trained to tree bears. This can be a very exciting way to hunt, especially when the hounds wail to indicate a bear has been treed, and the scramble to locate them begins. Pursuit with dogs and baiting methods allow hunters to be more selective in their harvest – by choosing to shoot or let the bear go – particularly when young bears and sows are encountered. Spot-and-stalk hunting in the spring is recognized at the ultimate challenge for the black bear hunter. This is the favored method in the Pacific Northwest, particularly in areas that have been logged, and where baiting is illegal. Still-hunting along old logging roads where there is evidence of bear activity can also be productive. Fall spot-and-stalk hunting should focus on food sources, as bears spend up to 20 hours daily foraging in preparation for winter. Success is usually related to the degree of preparation, while knowledge of both the country hunted and bear behavior, and a good set of stalking and shooting skills are also important.

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Predator calling is an effective technique in the fall, when opportunistic black bears are feeding-up prior to hibernation. It’s a good idea to stay alert, protect your back and hunt with a partner for safety when calling, as predators that respond to the sounds of wounded prey will come in prepared to kill. Coyote hunters are often surprised by bears that show up. This phenomenon seems to occur more frequently today with electronic callers that run continuously, than in the past when intermittent mouth calling was more common. When hunting for other species like deer, elk, pronghorn or even upland birds in an area that also holds black bears, consider the possibility of this bonus opportunity. Fall bear tags are often inexpensive and sold over-the-counter in many states. Far too many hunters are unprepared when this opportunity presents, and a little advance planning can prevent you from missing what could be the chance of a lifetime for a big fall bruin.

No special gear is required to hunt black bears, which are taken with a variety of weapons from traditional archery to crossbows, and flintlocks to centerfire rifles and handguns. However, there are a few important equipment considerations when hunting black bears. First, these animals are unbelievably strong and can be dangerous, particularly when wounded. Bear guides prefer big caliber rifles – the .338 Remington Ultra Mag is a favorite – shooting well crafted bullets that penetrate deeply. Precise shot placement is important to avoid a potentially dangerous recovery, so use enough gun but make sure you can handle it comfortably and competently. Bowhunters should use ultra sharp cut-on-contact broadheads to insure penetration through tough bear hides. Good quality optics – binoculars and spotting scopes – are essential for locating and evaluating black bears. A clear, bright binocular will also help stand hunters, particularly in low light conditions and when determining the sex of individual bears. An item often overlooked by black bear hunters is a sturdy frame pack, as the full hide and head of a large specimen can weigh over 100 lbs. Careful attention to scent control will also pay dividends, as black bears have the best sense of smell of all terrestrial mammals based on the number of scent receptors in their nasal mucosa.

Fun Facts About Black Bears

  • The name “black” bear seems odd since this animal occurs in more color phases than any other mammal in North America, including brown, cinnamon, blonde, bluish gray and white in addition to black.
  • Lean bears can run 30+ mph, up or downhill, over smooth or rough terrain. Fat bears with heavy winter coats overheat and tire quickly.
  • The black bear’s sense of smell is estimated to be 7 times greater than a bloodhound. One was famously observed traveling directly to a deer carcass from 18 miles away!
  • Black bears are the only bears that can climb trees. Falling from trees accounts for a significant portion of natural deaths that occur in the wild.
  • The iconic teddy bear was named after Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, 26th U.S. President, after a well publicized incident with a black bear during a hunt in 1902.
  • A black bear cub that was rehabilitated from burns sustained in the Capitan Gap fire in New Mexico in the spring of 1950 became the living representative of Smokey Bear, the mascot of the U. S. Forest Service.