American black bears are usually true to their name, but you might spot one who is brown, reddish, yellowish or cream-colored. Adult black bears range from five to six feet long and between 250 and 330 pounds. For such large animals, they can run fairly quickly -- up to 25 miles per hour -- and are skillful tree climbers.
Black bears are the most widely distributed and smallest of the three bears found in North America. The other two, the polar bear and the grizzly bear, are much more restricted in their territories.
In general, black bears live in areas of mature or restored forests. They can occupy a variety of habitats provided there is a large enough block of undisturbed land, such as woodlands in the East and chaparral and scrub in the Southwest. Bears require fairly large areas of habitat and have a general intolerance toward one another (apart from mothers and their cubs). This contributes to their typically low population densities.
Many assume that bears are exclusively meat eaters while, in fact, plant foods make up the bulk of their diet. Bears eat ripening fruits, berries, and nuts particularly during the fall months when they are busy packing on the pounds for winter. Black bears also eat insects, carrion (dead animals), and occasional small prey. Around homes and in passing through suburban neighborhoods, bears may stop to sample the fare in gardens, compost bins, trash cans, birdfeeders, beehives, and outdoor barbecues.
When temperatures drop and food grows scarce with the onset of winter, bears retire to a state called “denning.” They slow their metabolism but their body temperature does not drop. They can easily be awakened. Some bears may not enter this condition at all, if food is plentiful year-round. Rock ledges, hollow trees, brush piles, and man-made dens, such as culvert pipes and areas under decks and patios, are all used to take refuge from winter snows and their accompanying food shortages.
Conflicts, when they occur, often involve juvenile male bears. On their own for the first time as they leave the areas where they were born in search of suitable new ranges, these young bears sometimes wind up too close to humans and find easy food from garbage cans and backyard grills. The bears’ confusion and uncertainty, coupled with people’s inexperience and a misperception of the threat such an animal poses, sometimes lead to fatal consequences for the bears.
But with a little foresight and planning, that doesn’t have to happen. Homeowners can prevent conflicts with bears by eliminating easy food sources such as garbage, compost, grills, and pet food left outdoors. If that proves insufficient, properly equipped and trained law enforcement or wildlife professionals can be called upon to convince bears that humans don’t make good neighbors. Non-lethal black bear conditioning techniques have proven highly successful in many areas of the country, including Yosemite National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The “aversive conditioning” strategies trained professionals use include rubber bullets, pyrotechnics, repellents, body postures and vocalizations, and specially trained dogs to re-instill the natural wariness of humans that some bears have lost.
Black bears are passive, shy creatures by nature. But while attacks on humans are extremely rare, bears should be respected and should never be underestimated. As with any wild animal, close-up encounters with bears should be avoided and discouraged. As the saying goes, “a fed bear is a dead bear” -- bears who become accustomed to finding food around human dwellings are inevitably labeled nuisances and often pay for it with their lives.