Species Spotlight: American Black Bear

black bearThe American black bear (Ursus americanus) lives throughout much of the continent, including northern Canada and Alaska, the Lower 48, and south into Mexico.

While there were probably once as many as 2 million black bears in North America before European colonization, the population declined to a low of 200,000 as a result of habitat destruction and hunting. National parks and public lands have played a key role in the recovery of the species. By current estimates, there are more than 900,000 black bears living in North America. They can be spotted at Yosemite National Park in California, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, and many parks in between.

Hoping to spot a black bear at a park near you? Bears are most active at dawn and dusk but also are seen by visitors during daylight hours.

As their name indicates, black bears generally have shaggy black hair. However, some bears can be brown, blonde or cinnamon colored. Compared to their larger cousin, the grizzly bear, black bears tend to be smaller. They’re recognizable by their small eyes, rounded ears, long snout, large body and short tail.

Male black bears (boars) are between five and six feet long and two to three feet tall and they typically weigh between 100 and 300 pounds. Females (sows) range in weight between 100 and 175 pounds. Cubs usually weigh between seven ounces and one pound at birth.

Although black bears are carnivores, their diet is quite varied and they tend to be opportunistic. They will eat grubs and other insects, roots, flowers, grasses, acorns, fruit, and carrion, as well as groundhogs, deer, and other small mammals. Feeding during the fall is intense with one to two pound gains per day. Bears will raid orchards, beehives, and agricultural crops. They also frequent garbage dumps or may raid the trash bins of businesses or private homes. Black bears may occasionally prey on domestic sheep and pigs when their natural foods are scarce.

When visiting the park you have a responsibility to keep your distance from the bears, not attempt to feed any wildlife in the park, and to properly handle, store, and dispose of your food and garbage. For tips about staying safe in bear country, visit our bear safety page.

Need help identifying a bear you’ve spotted? Check out our black bear vs grizzly bear comparison chart!

Fun Facts:

Black bears are not always black. Frequently they are brown or cinnamon colored.

Black bears are excellent tree climbers. They are fast-moving and can easily outrun the quickest human.

During late summer and early fall, black bears start to eat continuously and may gain as much as 30 pounds while preparing for hibernation.

Today, a major threat to the American black bear is widespread poaching. Asian markets will pay generously for bear gall bladders and paws, considered to have medicinal value in China, Japan, and Korea. The demand for these parts also affects grizzly and polar bears. In Alaska, it is illegal to purchase, sell, or barter any part of a bear.

Image: Black bear at Lake Clark Park & Preserve. Source: NPS.