Today the black bear occupies only about one-half of the area it used to in North America. Black bears favor forested areas since their tree climbing ability provides them safety.
(Historical and current distribution maps from of the black bear in North America from Ursus, 25(1):24-33. 2014, Brian K. Scheick and Walter McCown)
The black bear (Ursus americanus) can be black, brown, blue, blonde, or white. Its color depends somewhat on the habitat it lives in. It tends to be jet black in dense forest habitats and lighter brown in more arid regions.
The rare white phase of the black bear, the Kermode, or “Spirit Bear“ results when both parents carry a recessive gene. Only about 200 Kermode bears are thought to exist, mainly in the coastal rainforests of British Columbia.
Black bears do best where there are natural openings in the forest canopy, allowing light to reach the forest floor and promote the growth of grass, shrubs, and berries. Bears eat a lot of vegetation! Avalanche scars, forest fire scars, floodplains of rivers, and areas where old trees blow down help provide natural forest habitat for the black bear.
Bear biologists attribute part of the decline in black bear population to the long-term policies of fire suppression — ironically opposite the message from Smokey the Bear. (Smokey the Bear was a black bear cub injured in a forest fire in New Mexico). Ideally, intermittent forest fires that open up parts of dense forests, while not completely devasting the forest, improve black bear habitat.
Forest land cleared for agriculture negatively impacts black bears. The bears learn to eat agricultural crops, honey, and dead livestock that some ranchers do not dispose of. The important mantra, “A fed bear, is a dead bear”, applies here as the bears learn about the new sources of food and return, eventually killed by farmers, beekeepers, and ranchers. Electric fencing and simple changes in pasture management can eliminate or greatly reduce the negative impacts of black bears on agriculture.
Black bears and humans exist in close proximity more and more each year. The result is more bears are killed through collisions with cars, poachers, and “pest control” by landowners who previously attracted the bears to their property. Improperly stored garbage, unpicked fruit on trees and fruit that has fallen from trees, bird feeders, and unsecured food will attract bears. Once the bears find the new food source, they will return.
Black bear sows are rarely as aggressive as grizzly bear sows when it comes to protecting their cubs. Biologists speculate that this difference mainly to the tree-climbing defense strategy of black bears.
I have observed grizzly bear cubs, and adult grizzly bears, climb trees for safety on the Alaska Peninsula. The difference between the species in tree climbing behavior I have observed is that the grizzly bears climbed trees when a threat was imminent, like another adult bear approaching, whereas the black bear cubs went up into trees even when there was no direct threat. The black bear cubs hung out up in the trees whenever their mother was fishing.
Black bears hibernate from early November to December, depending on winter snow conditions, and emerge from hibernation from late February to April. They hibernate in dens they dig, or in beds under downed trees, and inside hollowed-out trees. In areas with large trees black bears sometimes den in cavities in trees way above the ground.
In early spring black bears feed on overwintered berries and scavenge for winter-killed mammals. They are attracted to areas where fresh grasses and vegetation begins to grow at the onset of spring.
Summertime finds bears focussing on green vegetation for food, and insects found in dead wood. Berries are an important high-energy food source black bears in late summer.
Fattening up in the fall, before hibernation, is an important time for black bears. This is a risky period for the black bear as it becomes food obsessed and is more willing to venture closer to civilization in search of unpicked fruit, bird feeders, and unsecured garbage.
Where I live in Northern New Mexico black bears arrive every fall to feast in the apple orchards, or at the homes of those who do not pick their fruit.