We saw our first black bear of the 2017 summer on the shore of Wrangell Narrows as we passed through on our way to Petersburg, Alaska. So I decided to make the American Black Bear the subject of Critter Post No. 2. (For those of you who didn’t see Critter Post 1, the inspiration for this series came from fellow blogger, sailor, and birder who writes a regular Bird Photography Challenge post on her site s/v Take It Easy.)
Native to North America, the black bear is the most widely-distributed bear across the continent. It is listed as Least Concern due to its large population, about twice that of all other bear species combined. Black bears split from their common ancestor with the brown and polar bears over 5 million years ago. They are divided into several subspecies, among them the Kermode or “spirit” bear – whose fur is actually white – of northern coastal British Columbia. Their size varies considerably with age, sex, and season – they weigh much more in the late summer before hibernation than in spring when they emerge from their dens. Adult males typically weigh between 125 and 550 pounds.
Range and Habitat:
Black bears prefer forested terrain with thick undergrowth, and occur throughout the East Coast of North America, northern Midwest, Rocky Mountains, West Coast, and Alaska. The largest population in the Lower 48 is in Maine, with an estimated 30,000 bears.
Black bears are omnivores. They eat new grasses, wetland plants, buds, berries, fruits, and the nuts of forest trees (they sometimes raid the caches of squirrels), insects – yellow jackets, ants, and bees – honey (think Winnie the Pooh!), salmon (for coastal bears), trout, catfish, carrion, and – opportunistically – deer fawns.
Pretty much no one. Black bears sometimes find themselves in competition over carcasses with mountain lions or wolves and tend to have better success stealing carrion from cougars than from wolves. Black bears avoid brown/grizzly bears.
Behavior and Characteristics:
Black bears have excellent hearing, eyesight, and sense of smell. They swim and climb trees well. They are territorial and don’t often tolerate the presence of other black bears, although this is not as true in places where food is abundant (such as salmon spawning runs).
Sows have their first offspring at 3-5 years and the litter size is generally 2-3 cubs. They stay with their mother for their first year.
Black bears hibernate each winter, their heart rate dropping to only 8 beats per minute, although their body temperature does not drop significantly. They live on average 18 years, sometimes as long as 23 years.