Species Spotlight: The American Black Bear


The American black bear, Ursus americanus, is by far the most widespread bear in the Western Hemisphere and probably the most numerous bear species in the world. Although most typically a forest animal, the black bear is actually quite adaptable, found today in southern swamps, mountain ranges in the arid Southwest, and north of treeline in both Canada and Alaska.

During our pioneering era, black bear numbers were greatly reduced, but in the last century they have made an amazing comeback. The black bear was generally never resident in the treeless Great Plains and is not today, but in recent years, black bears have been sighted in all of the "Lower 48" states, including such seemingly unlikely places as Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.

As of 2011, the Black Bear Society reckons that only Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota lack resident, breeding black bear populations'¦but sightings are increasingly common in all of these states. The black bear is now hunted in 28 states. New Jersey was the most recent state to reopen black bear hunting, and at this writing, the Florida legislature is considering a bear season for the first time in 20 years.

Increases in both range and population have greatly expanded bear hunting opportunities in the last few decades, with black bear hunting now available in every region of the continental United States, across Canada, and, of course, in Alaska (which has a population in excess of 200,000 black bears). Black bear hunting techniques vary perhaps more than with any other game animal. These techniques developed based largely on terrain and vegetation. Both baiting and use of hounds are under attack by the anti-hunters and, very unfortunately, are often not understood by many hunters as well as non-hunters.

In the West, "spot-and-stalk" techniques are by far the most common. I am primarily a Western hunter, and this is my favorite technique. But seeing black bears presupposes enough open country to spot bears moving and vantage points to see them from.

Baiting developed in forested country — primary bear habitat where the generally shy and often nocturnal black bear may be extremely plentiful but is rarely seen. An alternative is hunting with hounds, now under widespread attack from the anti-hunters (often joined by misinformed hunters).

I am not a houndsman, but I defend the technique because it is the most traditional of all black bear hunting techniques, avidly pursued by the likes of Daniel Boone, David Crockett, and Theodore Roosevelt. And also because it is the most selective of all bear hunting techniques.

Unlike all other hunting techniques, hound hunting offers two chances to wave off and walk away. First, when a track is found; second when the bear is bayed or treed. With hound hunting, there is no reason or excuse for a mistake. This is important because bears are exceedingly difficult to judge for both size and sex.

Natural History

Biologists have attempted to identify as many as 16 different subspecies of black bears. A few, such as isolated populations in Newfoundland and on Vancouver Island, are undoubtedly valid, but some are based on color phases, which vary widely. Many populations, including the eastern U.S. and Canada and in Alaska, are predominantly or entirely black.

In some areas, such as the Rocky Mountains, various shades of brown are common'¦and in certain places, such as northern California and on up into western British Columbia, brown color phases are dominant. There are at least two oddities. The Kermode, or "spirit bear," is a white black bear found only along British Columbia's central coast (and long protected); the "glacier bear" is an odd blue color phase caused by underlying pale guard hairs.

In both cases these are probably recessive genes.

Size also varies tremendously. Black bears generally follow "Bergmann's Rule," which theorizes that individuals within a given species grow larger the farther north or south from the equator, this to better retain heat in colder climates. So Canadian bears definitely average larger than Florida bears.

However, with black bears food sources, length of hibernation, and longevity have significant impact. Seemingly odd and far-flung places, such as Arizona, Newfoundland, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, are known for producing exceptionally large black bears.

Across the range a 200-pound black bear is generally an okay bear, and a true 300-pound bear is a very good bear. Anything over 400 pounds is a monster, but the sky is the limit; several black bears have officially weighed in excess of 800 pounds.

The black bear is an omnivorous feeder that can be both scavenger and effective predator, but also feeds on a wide variety of plant matter, from grass to mast to grain crops. Longevity in the wild probably averages 18 to 20 years, but captive black bears have lived into their 40s.

Length of hibernation depends on climate and food, but the black bear's long winter sleep is true hibernation, with all metabolic functions reduced and the animal existing on stored fat.

Black bears generally mate in June and July, with cubs born during hibernation in January and February. A litter of two or three is normal.Black bear loss to predation is extremely low, generally caused only by an occasional encounter with a wolf or an encounter with a brown/grizzly bear.

Like all bears, boars will commit infanticide, but their more solitary nature appears to make this less common with black bears than with grizzly and polar bears.

Shooting and Shot Placement

black_bear_1By nature, the black bear is generally a shy and retiring creature, but a wounded bear presents an altogether different situation! Choice of cartridges is complicated by the great variation in size. The average deer cartridge is perfect for the average-sized black bear'¦but if you encounter a bear four times larger than average, it's a different deal.

Across the board, a .30-caliber is a sound minimum, and there is justification for using .33s and .35s in the hopes you get a chance at a big one. Regardless of cartridge and caliber, choose a tough bullet that is sure to penetrate.

Even average-size black bears have heavier bones and thicker muscles than any deer. Ideally, the central shoulder shot is the best. Shoot to break heavy bone enroute to the vitals!

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