In spite of its name, the American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) is found in various colors in addition to black, including brown, cinnamon, tan, beige and blonde. In its brown color phase, the black bear has been mistaken for the grizzly bear, also called brown bears, but the black bear lacks the characteristic fatty hump on the shoulder found in grizzly bears, has much shorter claws than the grizzly and is considerably smaller. There is a pure white black bear called Spirit Bear or Kermodes Bear found in far western Canada.
Black bears are found in forests, mountains and meadows of North America, Canada and parts of Mexico. Black bears have a heavy rounded body which belies their agility and speed. They are excellent tree climbers and can reach speeds of 25 miles per hour for short distances. Their average size and weight is 35 to 40 inches tall, 4 1/2 to 6 feet in length and from 125 to 600 pounds.
Black bears are omnivorous, meaning that they will eat almost anything, but they are primarily vegetarian, eating nuts, tubers, berries, flowers, shrubs and grasses. But they will also consume animal carcasses, fish, insects, honey, small mammals and elk and moose calves.
Adult black bears have few predators other than humans, although brown bears and wolf packs have been known to attack them. Black bear cubs are at risk from male black bears, mountain lions, wolves and other large predators. Bear cubs stay with their mother for their first year while she teaches them to forage for food and other basic life skills. Once the cubs become independent, the female will drive them off.
By late summer and early fall, black bears begin to prepare for winter hibernation by foraging nearly non-stop. They need to gain as much weight as possible to survive on fat reserves throughout the winter. Bears will seek out caves, dig a den, or use a hollow log or dense undergrowth as their winter hiding place. In areas with a more moderate climate and a short period when food is not available, black bears either do not hibernate or they spend short periods of time resting in a den. Hibernation is more than just sleep. The bear’s metabolism slows by more than one-half. Their heart rate drops to eight to twelve beats per minute. They do not pass waste; their system reabsorbs it. They will lose as much as 40% of their body weight by the time they emerge from their dens in spring.
Black bears have a unique reproductive cycle. The fertilized egg floats freely in the uterus for as long as six months with no development. Once the female begins to prepare for hibernation, the egg attaches itself to the uterine wall, but only if the female has enough body fat to carry her and her cubs through the winter. Otherwise the egg will be reabsorbed. The cubs are born while their mother is hibernating. The average litter size is two. Cubs are very tiny and helpless at birth but will develop quickly enough to be able to leave the den with their mother in spring.
PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE BEARS!! Everyone should heed this warning. Wild animals know how to get their own food. They do not need to depend on humans. Naturally, any wild animal would prefer an easy food source if it is presented. Once fed by humans, a wild animal begins to associate people as a food source and will keep coming back. Although black bears normally prefer to stay clear of people and rarely attack people unprovoked, it is highly dangerous for the bear to lose its natural fear of people, which often happens when the animal begins to rely on people for food. Not only is an attack on people more likely where bears are being fed, but a wild animal that has attacked people has to be destroyed.