Celebration of the Black Bear

Ursus americanus

The first Saturday in June is National Black Bear Day.  The timing is perfect as I have been filming elk calving and am on the lookout for Black Bears preying on young elk.  The omnivorous Black Bear feeds mostly on grasses, legumes, and herbs this time of year.  If they can supplement their diet with a young elk, they will.  As I hide out in aspen forests and high-altitude meadows filming elk, I am always on the lookout for Black Bear.  I respect bears, but I do not fear them.

A wet Black Bear waits patiently for Pink Salmon (Humpy Salmon) to come close to his lair among the boulders.
Tongass National Forest, Alaska

The Current Range of Black Bears in the U.S. is About One-Half of Their Historical Range

American black bears are incredible tree climbers.  They rely on trees for safety from attacks from other bears.  The American Black Bear once lived throughout all the forested parts of North America.   The current range of American black bears in the United States (U.S.) is estimated at 45-60% of its historical range.  Black bears are doing much better in Canada, with their current range being 95-100% of their historical range.

Historical Range

Historical Range of the Black Bear in North America

The historical range of the Black Bear in North America is shown here.  From Brian K. Scheik and Walter McCown, Ursus25(1): 24-33.  2014.

Current Range

The estimated primary and secondary range for Black Bears in North America, 2009-2012, is shown here. From Brian K. Scheik and Walter McCown, Ursus25(1): 24-33.  2014.

Historically the American black bear kept to the forested areas and away from the plains and high-arctic tundra where grizzly bears roamed and hunted black bears.  Black bears do best in forests with holes in their canopy, allowing sunlight to illuminate the forest floor.  The sunlight allows grasses and other vegetation to grow.  Since black bears are mostly vegetarian, these types of forest habitats are their preferred habitat.

A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear

When European settlers cleared swaths of eastern forests for agriculture, it improved habitat for the American black bear by opening up the canopy and allowing more sunlight to the forest floor.  Crops and livestock became a rich food source for the black bears, and soon they were hunted, trapped, and killed out of fear.  It was the beginning of the end for black bears in much of the eastern U.S.

Black bears experience high mortality in areas where forests are interspersed with farmland and areas where black bears have access to the easy food sources found in suburban settings.  Bird feeders, pet food, garbage cans that are not bear safe, and compost piles attract black bears.  The result is death to the bears by humans.  The mantra “a fed bear is a dead bear” is sadly a reality.

Black bear cub with a funny look on its face up in a tree.

An American black bear cub safe high up in a tree, is curious about a nearby kingfisher, while Mom fishes below in a salmon stream.
(Tongass National Forest, Alaksa)

Black Bears are Not Always Black

The American black bear comes in many colors: brown, cinnamon, blue, white, and black.

In the lush dense forests of the Eastern US, where Europeans first encountered the American black bear, the bears tend to be jet black in color.  The name “black bear” stuck before the settlers moved west and encountered brown phases of the same species.

American black bears in the Rocky Mountains and drier areas of western North America tend to be brown or cinnamon-colored.   Biologists have observed that in spring, these lighter-colored black bears feed in open, exposed slopes.  Their lighter color may keep them from overheating in spring-summer.  This genetic trait may be reinforced over many generations, resulting in a correlation between color and geographic region.  Of all the black bears I have seen in the Rocky Mountains, I rarely see one that is black in color.  They are brown or cinnamon-colored.

In rare cases, American black bears in southeastern Alaska and western British Columbia can be white (Kermode) or blue (glacier).  A recessive gene causes these colors.  If both parents of normal color have the recessive gene, then the bear cub can be white or blue colored.

The name “black bear” is confusing given the different colors it shows.  Some biologists have considered renaming it from American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) to American Bear.  Similar confusion exists between brown bears (Ursus arctos) and grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis).  A grizzly bear is a brown bear, but not all brown bears are grizzly bears.

American black bears have a wide variety of coloring, ranging from jet black, brown, cinnamon, white (“Kermode” Bear), and a bluish-grey color. (Tongass National Forest, Alaska)

Protective Moms with Cubs

Mother bears are very protective of their cubs for a good reason. Predators, including other bears, frequently kill bear cubs.

Unfortunately, an all too common situation occurs in spring and early summer. Mother bear with cubs encounters human, human is perceived as a threat, mother bear defensively attacks humans, law enforcement is called, mother bear is shot and killed.

Improperly stored food and garbage, forest trail running during the spring, and long-held misinformation about what to do when you encounter a mother bear with cubs lead to many bear attacks and killed bears every spring and summer.  Just yesterday, I read of another bear attack(1) A Steamboat Springs, Colorado man was attacked on May 30, 2021, by a mother bear with two cubs who were eating birdseed in the man’s garage after he left the garage door open at night by a mother black bear with cubs, which follows another recent attack(2)A Durango, Colorado woman was killed by a black bear mother with two yearling cubs while walking her dogs involving a mother bear and cubs.

We have been taught to act big and scare away a bear.  I think this is the worst advice possible when encountering a BEAR WITH CUBS.  If possible, quietly walk away from a mother bear with cubs.  Please do not turn your back on her, do not run, yell at her, or threaten her.  Instead, do whatever it takes to communicate you are not a threat.  The goal is to put her at ease and avoid a defensive attack. Sometimes this is not possible, and that is why I carry bear spray with me.  A firearm may make you feel safer or perhaps look cool, or fit your political identity, but the bear spray is way more effective in stopping a charging bear.  ( I own a bear rifle and bear revolver — they sit at home in my gun safe for most of my adventures in bear country).

Your goal is to avoid having a mother bear feel threatened.   Do not surprise a mother bear. Alert bears that you are in the area by making a lot of noise.  Talking loudly is the best.  You want to sound like a human, not like an injured animal, or something the bear might be curious about. Bears are most active at dawn and dusk, and this is when most bear attacks occur. Wear a headlamp, talk loudly, and avoid surprising a bear with cubs. Be extra cautious when you are around food sources, like garbage dumpsters, carcasses, or food harvests.

Working late one night, I walked by a garbage dumpster like I did many times before, but this night a bear jumped out of the dumpster.  I had accidentally scared it. I quietly spoke to it and walked away; all was good.

While hiking along a salmon stream in Alaska and making lots of noise by talking and singing loudly, I accidentally stepped on a sleeping brown bear cub.  The noise of moving water drowned out my sounds. I should have been yelling instead of talking as I hiked. My instincts took over, and I instantly curled up in the fetal position on the ground. The sky darkened above me as the mother bear hovered above me. I laid still and let her leave the area with her cubs. I was lucky.

Black bear cub and mother in sunshine of rainforest.

A mother black bear and spring cub sun themselves in between rain showers in a temperate rainforest (Tongass National Forest, Alaska)

Go Climb a Tree

Trees provide safety for the American black bear.  They are amazing tree climbers and can climb up a tall tree in a matter of seconds. When I encounter black bears with cubs, the cubs scurry up a tree as their standard operating procedure.

Brown bears (Coastal Grizzly bears) also send their cubs up trees for safety.  Another common piece of misinformation is that “grizzly bears do not climb trees.”  Grizzly bears do climb trees, including adult grizzly bears.  I watched a 700-pound grizzly climb to the top of a tall tree to escape a larger male trying to attack her and her cub.

Bear biologists speculate that black bear mothers with cubs are less aggressive than brown bear mothers since black bear cubs instinctively bolt up the closest tree when they sense danger.  My experience is that brown bear cubs need more encouragement to climb up a tree than black bear cubs.

Hungry as a Bear

Studies of black bear diets show that black bears are mostly vegetarian(3)Data from Paul Poquet, in Bears Without Fear, by Kevin Van Tighem.

Food TypePercentage of Samples
Vegetable Matter100
Invertebrates (insects)52
Agricultural Crops5

The diet of the American black bear depends upon its region. In areas with salmon streams, their annual caloric intake is boosted during the spawning season.  In the Rocky Mountain west, elk calves provide an important food source in the spring and early summer.

It took this black bear spring cub about 10 seconds to climb this 80 feet tall tree.

Tongass National Forest, Alaska.

A large black bear sow fat from pink salmon in mid-August.  Tongass National Forest, Alaska.

Black bears face continuing threats in North America.  Excessive hunting, nuisance killing from crop and livestock loss, poaching to supply alternative medicine markets in Asia and the United States, habitat loss, and animal control euthanizations from human-bear conflicts reduce the population and range of the American black bear in the U.S.

The black bear is always a pleasant surprise for me to observe in nature. They are fun mileposts in my life’s memories. Jumping into my Dad’s arms as a 6-year-old encountering a bear at night in the Sierra Nevada to encountering them in the mountains of New Mexico are great experiences I remember.