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The American black bear

Published April 26. 2019 12:42PM


What has the body length of about 5 feet, rounded ears, small eyes, long snout, short tail and can weigh up to 800 pounds? The answer is the American black bear, Ursus americanus.

One of the most often asked questions we hear from visitors is, “Do you see many bears here at the center?” Honestly, the answer is no. I have been involved with the environmental center for 24 years and I have seen a bear twice on the grounds of the center.

Because there is so much interest in black bears, I thought I would focus on these interesting animals for this month’s article.

The most common color of fur is black with the white “V” on its chest, but the fur varies in color from white, cinnamon, cinnamon-brown, chocolate-brown and blond.

The average life span of a black bear can be up to 20 years, although the oldest documented wild bear lived to be 31 years of age. During their lives black bears can suffer from arthritis, cavities, car strikes, fractures from falls, disease, broken and worn teeth, bites from other animals and gun shots.

Because black bears can survive severe weather, food shortages and can go without eating, drinking, urinating or defecating they are now considered hibernators. While in hibernation, their heart rate drops from 40 to 50 beats per minute down to eight beats per minute. Unlike other hibernators, whose body temperatures drop drastically, black bears’ temperatures do not. This means they can rouse quickly. This allows bears to defend themselves and their cubs if a threat should disturb them in the den. Black bears most often choose to den under large boulders, depressions under brush, in tree cavities above ground or at the base of a tree.

Bears eat up to 20 hours a day during the fall, in preparation for winter. During this time, they enter “hyperphagia,” which literally means “excessive eating.” Black bears are omnivores and opportunistic. Typical food for them includes honey along with the bee larvae, wasp grubs, bird eggs, insects, voles, mice grasses, berries, carrion, rodents, skunk cabbage as well as a variety of other foodstuffs. Acorns, white bark pine nuts, and hickory nuts are favored as well. Occasionally, they will kill young deer. They have even been known to raid squirrel caches, too.

Black bears play an important role in forest ecosystems as seed dispersers and nutrient providers. Berry seeds pass through the bear and then germinate because the seeds come with their own pile of fresh manure as fertilizer. Also, by tearing into hollow trees that contain honeybee hives, they cause those trees to break down faster which allows the soil to become enriched.

The home range of a female black bear is 2 to 10 square miles while the male black bears cover larger areas and home ranges are 10 to 60 square miles. A female black bear generally will not share her territory with other females, but the ranges of several males may overlap with hers.

Black bears have good eyesight and exceptional hearing. Their sense of smell is unparalleled — more than seven times greater than a dog, particularly for food-related scents. Black bear habitat is primarily forests, forest edges and forest clearings.

Black bear females do not reproduce until they are 3 to 5 years old, but some may be as old as 7 when they first produce young. Females normally breed every other year and have an average of two cubs but can have one to five cubs. An interesting thing to remember is females do not mate while rearing young, so she may only produce six litters in her lifetime.

Black bears have excellent memories regarding food sources. Bears learn where the food can be found and revisit those places time and time again. Black bears are such creatures of habit that they will follow the same route so carefully that they will step into their own footsteps as they trace that route simply by smell. That makes perfect sense because I will go back to the same restaurants time and time again depending on past visits.

For more information on black bears, contact the Carbon County Environmental Education Center at 570-645-8597.


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