American Black Bear

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American Black Bear
Conservation status: Lower risk
Image provided by Classroom Clip Art (
Image provided by Classroom Clip Art (

Scientific classification
Species:U. americanus
Binomial name
Ursus americanus

The American Black Bear (Ursus americanus), also known as simply the black bear or cinnamon bear, is the most common bear in North America.

The black bear occurs throughout much of North America from northern Canada and Alaska south into Mexico and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This includes 39 of the 50 U.S. states and all Canadian provinces. Populations in east-central and the southern United States remain in the protected mountains and woodlands of parks and preserves. While there were probably once as many as two million black bears in North America, the population declined to a low of 200,000 before rebounding in recent decades, partly due to conservation measures. By current estimates, more than 600,000 are living today.[1] (



The black bear is about 1.5 metres (5 feet) long. Females weigh between 40 and 180 kg (90 and 400 pounds), while males weigh between 50 and 400 kg (110 and 880 pounds). Cubs usually weigh between 200 and 450 g (between 7 oz and 1 pound) at birth. The adult black bear has small eyes, rounded ears, a long snout, a large body, and a short tail. Though these bears indeed generally have shaggy black hair, the coat can vary in color depending on the subspecies: from white through chocolate brown, cinnamon brown, and blonde, found mostly West of the Mississippi River, to black in the East. Further adding to the confusion, black bears occasionally sport a slight white chest blaze on either side of the river.

While black bears are able to stand and walk on their hind legs, the usually stand or walk on all four legs. The black bear's characteristic shuffle results from walking flat-footed, with the hind legs slightly longer than the front legs. Each paw has five strong claws used for tearing, digging, and climbing. One blow from a powerful front paw is enough to kill an adult deer.

Habitat and behavior

Black bears prefer forested and shrubby areas but use wet meadows, high tidelands, ridgetops, burned areas, riparian areas, and avalanche chutes. They also frequent swampy hardwood and conifer forests. After emerging from their winter dens in spring, they seek southerly slopes at lower elevations for forage and move to northerly and easterly slopes at higher elevations as summer progresses. Black bears use dense cover for hiding and thermal protection, as well as for bedding. They climb trees to escape danger and use forested areas as travel corriders. Black bears hibernate during winter and may build dens in tree cavities, under logs, rocks, in banks, caves, or culverts, and in shallow depressions.

Image provided by Classroom Clip Art (
Image provided by Classroom Clip Art (

Black bears reach breeding maturity at about 4 or 5 years of age, and breed every 2 to 3 years. Black bears breed in the spring, usually in May and June, but the embryos do not begin to develop until the mother dens in the fall to hibernate through the winter months. However, if food was scarce and the mother has not gained enough fat to sustain herself during hibernation as well as produce cubs, the embryos do not implant (develop).

Black bear cubs are generally born in January or February. They are blind when born, and twins are most common, though first-time mothers typically only have a single cub. By spring thaw, when the bears start leaving their dens, the cubs are fur-balls of energy, inquisitive and playful. They are weaned between July and September of their first year, and stay with the mother through the first full winter. They are usually independent by the second winter.

Cub survival is totally dependent on the skill of the mother in teaching her cubs what to eat, where and how to forage (find food), where to den, and when and where to seek shelter from heat or danger.

Black bears eat a wide variey of foods, relying most heavily on grasses, herbs, fruits, and mast. They also feed on carrion and insects such as

Black bears sometimes kill and eat small rodents and ungulate fawns.

Image provided by Classroom Clip Art (
Image provided by Classroom Clip Art (
Black bears eat a great variety of vegetation and nuts as shown in the list below. It is notable that the list reflects the different types of habitat in which the black bear is found:

Black bears also eat salmon (Oncorynchus spp., salmo salar) and raid orchards, beehives, and crop fields. They pick from garbage dumps and trash bins of private homes. Black bears may occasionally prey on domestic sheep and pigs when their natural foods are scarce.

Black bear predators include man, the grizzly (Ursus arctos horriblis), and other Black bears. Coyotes (Canis latrans) and mountain lions (puma concolor) may prey on cubs.

History and Controversy

Because their behavior has been little understood until recently, black bears have been feared and hated. Before the 20th century these bears were shot intermittently as vermin, food, and trophies being seen as either a vicious beast or an endless commodity; The British beefeater's hat is made of black bear fur shipped from Canada as has been for many years and black bear rugs are not unknown in antique shops. Paradoxically, they have also been portrayed as harmless and cuddly. For example, the "teddy bear" owes its existence to a young black bear cub Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot. To date, black bears are as much an important game species as they are a point of debate across the continent, especially when it comes to the fact that many are finding life in the suburbs quite comfortable.

Their tendencies to follow their stomachs and habitat encroachment by man have created man-bear conflicts. This is true especially in areas where they may have been uncommon or absent for a long time, as in many parts of the eastern United States. An excellent example is the state of New Jersey. In New Jersey, bears were quite uncommon before the modern era as much land was cleared for homes and farming and also due to poor policies regarding hunting and forestry; by 1970 there were only 100 bears extant. However, due to changes in land usage, management, and population increases in neighboring Pennsylvania and New York, that number increased to nearly 1500 bears by 2003. The result is that the residents of this most densely populous state sometimes awaken to find the garbage ripped to shreds or a birdfeeder knocked to the ground at best, and at worst a bear invading the home or attacking. (Invasion usually happens after a bear has lost its fear and come to associate people with food and attacks occur when a human gets in the way of said food.) This is a cause for concern among civilians and scientists alike.

Taxonomy and subspecies ranges

The American black bear is classified as being in the class Mammalia, order Carnivora and family Ursidae.

Currently accepted subspecies (with their respective ranges) include:

Ursus americanus altifrontalisthe Pacific Northwest coast from central British Columbia through northern California and inland to the tip of northern Idaho and British Columbia
Ursus americanus amblycepsColorado, New Mexico, west Texas and the eastern half of Arizona into northern Mexico; southeastern Utah
Ursus americanus americanus from eastern Montana to the Atlantic; from Alaska south and east through Canada to the Atlantic and south to Texas
Ursus americanus californiensisthe Central Valley of California, north through southern Oregon
Ursus americanus carlottaeQueen Charlotte Islands and Alaska
Ursus americanus cinnamomumIdaho, western Montana, and Wyoming, eastern Washington and Oregon, northeastern Utah
Ursus americanus emmonsiisoutheastern Alaska
Ursus americanus eremicusnortheastern Mexico
Ursus americanus floridanus Florida, southern Georgia and Alabama
Ursus americanus hamiltonithe island of Newfoundland
Ursus americanus kermodeithe central coast of British Columbia
Ursus americanus luteoluseastern Texas, Louisiana, southern Mississippi
Ursus americanus machetesnorth-central Mexico
Ursus americanus pernigerKenai Peninsula, Alaska
Ursus americanus pugnaxAlexander Archipelago, Alaska
Ursus americanus vancouveriVancouver Island, British Columbia

Current legal protections

Today, a major threat to the American black bear is widespread poaching, or illegal killing, to supply Asian markets with bear gall bladders and paws, considered to have medicinal value in China, Japan, and Korea. The demand for these parts also affects grizzly and polar bears. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (also known as CITES), a treaty among more than 120 nations, provides measures to curb illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products across international boundaries, helping to protect the black bear from poaching.

While black bears are abundant in much of the West, some Eastern populations are at critically low levels. Two subspecies found in the southeastern U.S., the Louisiana black bear and the Florida black bear, still face decline mainly due to habitat loss and degradation.

In 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Louisiana black bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, meaning it could become in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range in the foreseeable future. The American black bear also is protected by the Act in the affected states (Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas) due to its close resemblance to this subspecies. The Florida black bear is a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.


  • The sports teams of the University of Maine are known as Black Bears.
  • Ursus americanus kermodei, commonly known as the "spirit bear", is a rare white (not albino) subspecies found in temperate rain forests on the Pacific northwest coast of North America. Native tradition credits these animals with supernatural powers.
  • Smokey Bear, mascot of the United States Forest Service is based on an actual black bear cub found in New Mexico.
  • The refusal of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to shoot a cornered black bear cub in Mississippi led to the invention of the teddy bear.
  • In August 2004, the New York Times reported that a wild black bear was found passed out after drinking about 36 cans of beer in Baker Lake, Washington, USA. The bear opened a camper's cooler and used its claws and teeth to puncture the cans. It was found the bear selectively opened cans of Rainier Beer and left all Busch Beer unconsumed.
  • The largest Black Bear ever was one that had been hunted in Wisconsin in 1885. The reported weight was 802 pounds.

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