American black bear (Ursus americanus)

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderCarnivora
FamilyUrsidae
GenusUrsus (1)
SizeHead-body length: 1.2 – 1.9 m (2)
Shoulder height: 0.7 – 1 m (2)
Male weight: 60 – 225 kg (2)
Female weight: 40 – 150 kg (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3). Subspecies Ursus americanus emmonsii listed on Appendix I of CITES (2).

With a population double that of all other bear species combined, the American black bear is by far the most common member of the bear family (Ursidae) (1) (2). Despite its common name, the black bear exhibits considerable variation in colouration, both among individuals from a single litter, and between populations from separate geographical regions (2) (4). While most populations in the west of the American black bear’s range have black fur, in the east, many populations have lighter cinnamon or yellow-brown coats. In addition, some populations found along the pacific coast have grey-blue fur, while in British Colombia, Canada, around ten percent of the population have an entirely white coat (2) (5). It has been suggested that the variability in coat colouration may be related to habitat, with lighter coloured bears occurring in open habitats. It may also serve a purpose in mimicking brown bears (Ursus arctos) that compete and sometimes prey upon this species (2). Despite some similarities between the American black bear and the brown bear, this species can readily be identified by its head profile, which slopes in a roughly straight line from the brow to the end of the snout. In addition, it lacks a prominent shoulder hump, and has short claws, well suited for climbing (2) (5). The American black bear produces a range of vocalisations, with a “woof” sound usually given in alarm by adults, while the young may produce shrill howls when lonely or frightened (4).

Found only in North America, the American black bear was historically distributed throughout all forested areas, from northern Canada, south through the U.S.A., to central Mexico. Today, despite a significant decline in range in many areas, such as the Midwest, this species remains widespread and can still be found throughout much of Canada and the United States, as well as in eight states of northern Mexico (1).

While the American black bear principally occurs in coniferous and deciduous forest and woodland, it is highly adaptable and can be found in dry Mexican scrub forest, Louisiana swamps, Alaskan temperate rainforest, and Labrador tundra (1) (2) (5). This species also occurs over a range of altitudes, from sea-level to elevations of up to 3,500 metres (1).

While the American black bear typically forages during the night, it is potentially active at any time (4). Feeding is opportunistic, with a wide variety of foods taken according to location and season (2). In some parts of this species’ range, as much as 95 percent of the diet may consist of plant-based foods, such as roots, buds, berries, nuts and fruits (5). Animals may also be taken, particularly by American black bear populations found in Labrador, which hunt small mammals and caribou (2). Due to the proximity of human settlements to many parts of this species’ range, as well as increasing recreational use of its habitat, the American black bear has adapted to exploit a variety of human-related foods. These include refuse, birdseed, agricultural products and honey from apiaries (1) Despite this bear’s typically slow-moving, lumbering gait, it can move at great speed when necessary, and is capable of climbing trees and swimming (4). Home ranges are large, and vary according to the geographical area. Males on Long Island, off south-western Washington, range over areas of around 5 square kilometres, while males found in the tundra of the Ungava Peninsula, Canada range over areas of up to 1,000 square kilometres (4). While home ranges may overlap, this species is generally solitary, and at certain times of the year may be territorial. Congregations do occur around abundant food sources, at which time dominance hierarchies form (4).

While breeding occurs between June and July, the fertilised eggs undergo delayed development and do not implant in the female’s womb until November. Thereafter they undergo a rapid ten week development, with a litter or up to six cubs being born around January (2). Despite being weaned at six to eight months old, the cubs remain with the mother for a further 9 months, spending a second winter in hibernation together, before separating to avoid male aggression during the breeding season (2) (4). Reproductive maturity is reached at around four to five years in females and a year later in males, while the lifespan is usually 25 years (2) (4).

In the northern parts of its range, the American black bear undergoes an annual period of hibernation, during which it lives on stored fat, and reduces its body temperature and heart-rate to conserve energy (2) (4). In the warmer southern parts of its range, this species may hibernate for much shorter periods or remain active all year round, although pregnant females always create a den in which to spend the winter, give birth and nurse the cubs. Dens are usually constructed by digging out a hollow in earth or snow, although in southern regions dens may also be built in trees (2).

Historically, the American black bear has suffered from heavy persecution due to fear and to prevent loss of livestock and crops, as well as from hunting for sport, meat and fur. In addition, the ongoing spread of urban development and roads has claimed many parts of this species’ habitat (1) (4). Fortunately, the American black bear’s highly adaptable nature and tolerance of humans, has allowed it to exploit human food sources and to withstand the degradation and fragmentation of its habitat (1) (2). In addition, despite extensive legal hunting in the U.S.A. and Canada, regulation has proved effective, and the majority of American black bear populations are either stable or increasing. Nevertheless, some smaller, isolated populations are at risk of extirpation, for example the Louisiana black bear subspecies (Ursus americanus luteolus) and the Florida black bear(Ursus americanus floridanus). As humans continue to encroach on the American black bear’s range there is a risk that habitat loss may not only destroy the more fragile populations, but may, in the long-term, also have a detrimental effect on those currently considered stable (1).

Along with effective legal hunting regulations in Canada and the U.S.A., numerous conservation initiatives are in place for the American black bear. The establishment of protected areas throughout this species’ range has helped to protect it to some degree from habitat loss. For example, in 2006, the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement led to the establishment of a large system of protected areas, in coastal temperate rainforest.

In addition, reintroductions have allowed the American black bear to expand its range into areas where it was previously extirpated, while augmentation of some small populations with bears from other regions has enabled their continued survival (1)

The more threatened populations of American black bear have received particular conservation attention. In Mexico, where this species is considered to be nationally endangered, all hunting is illegal, and large areas of suitable habitat have been established as protected areas (1). The Louisiana black bear has also had the remaining areas of its fragmented habitat protected, and is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Habitat restoration work and public education programs are being implemented by a coalition of numerous state and federal agencies, conservation groups, forestry and agricultural industries, and private landowners (1).

International trade in this species is also controlled, although not because of a direct threat to this species, but in order to prevent false trade of endangered Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus) parts. These parts, predominantly gall bladders sold to Asian markets for use in traditional medicine, are frequently passed off as having come from American black bears (1) (2) (4).

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  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2009)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. CITES (May, 2009)
    http://www.cites.org
  4. Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker's Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  5. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.