Biodiversity in Your Backyard: Black Bears

This very special issue of Biodiversity in Your Backyard features my favorite mammals: bears! Yes, there are all sorts of bears, like polar bears and grizzly bears around the world, but we’ll be focusing exclusively on the humble, noble Black Bear. Known in the scientific world as Ursus americanus, and in the not-so-scientific world as the Danger Floof, the black bear is one of the coolest big animals that you can see in the wild. Black bears are the only bear species present in the US South and Southeast, but other species of bear are present, alongside black bears, in the western half of the country.

An image of a black bear with white text, "Danger floof" below

Questions You’ve Never Asked About Bears

Are bears related to dogs or cats?

In the great tree of life, bears are most closely related to dog-like creatures, including dogs, weasels, and raccoons as well as seals, sea lions, and walruses. This suborder is the Caniformia, whereas cat-like creatures belong to the Feliformia suborder. Both of these are “sub” orders within the Carnivora (meat-eating) order of Mammals.

What is the bear’s best sense?

Bears don’t see very well, but they sure can use their noses! A bear’s nose is seven times better than a bloodhound’s. Bears can smell a food source from over a mile away, which is why keeping your food safe from bears while you’re out on a hike or camping is so essential. A quick trip to YouTube shows countless showdowns between bears and cars…and usually the bears win.

Do all bears hibernate?

No. Some places where bears live are too warm for them to hibernate, like parts of the US South. If you talk to some scientists, they’ll tell you that bears don’t truly “hibernate” at all because hibernation is when the body completely shuts down for a few months, and can even freeze. Hibernation is useful for animals because it helps them get through long periods with little or no food. Bears don’t truly hibernate though; they just enter a state of “torpor”, which is like a deep sleep, but their bodies keep burning through fat stores. An important difference between the two: it’s easy for an animal in torpor to wake up and avoid danger, so don’t go poking a sleeping bear, especially in the winter.

If bears can find food during a warm winter, you’ll catch them wandering around occasionally. This behavior is more common in young male bears than females, probably because they’re not giving birth and rearing young during the winter months. Bears that do hibernate usually do so from late fall into early spring.

What do bears eat?

Black bears tend to be mostly vegetarian. Although, like most mammals, they will take an opportunity for meat if it’s easier. Bears live on fruits, nuts, and greens as the bulk of their diet, with insects, fish, and scavenged meat after that. The amount of meat that bears eat really depends on where they live. In highly populated human areas, I’m sure their diet gets a fair amount of human trash, too.

What color are black bears?

Black, right? WRONG! Black bears can be varying shades of black, brown, and even white. Fur color, just like in dogs and cats, is mostly determined by genetics.

Coexisting With Black Bears Safely

Black bears may have a fearsome reputation, but in the vast majority of cases, encounters with black bears leave both parties uninjured. Bears are most aggressive when they’re habituated to humans or have something (like their cubs) to protect. Other species of bear, like the grizzly, are larger and potentially more aggressive.

Image credit: Jon Albert

If you encounter a bear in the wild, back up slowly to a safe distance as soon as possible. If a bear charges you, stand your ground. Running from a bear is a bad idea. They’re definitely faster than you, and running can activate their prey drive. Bears sometimes do “false charges” where they charge you but stop short. Carrying bear spray, noise makers, and minimizing the food smell coming from you are great ways to minimize the chances of bear encounters and attacks.

Prevention is the best medicine. If you’re camping in bear country, be sure to store your food in bear-safe containers, and make sure that you do not smell like food. I’ll never forget a story I read while I was researching hammock camping: Someone had cooked and wiped hamburger grease onto his pants, then went to sleep in those same pants. He referred to himself as a “bear burrito” because the bear had thought his hammock was full of food. He suffered a bite, but survived. Most importantly, he recognized his mistake and didn’t blame the bear. Bears also sometimes go through tents and cars in search of food.

Finally, if you live in bear country, invest in mitigation measures before the bear gets labeled as a nuisance. Bear-proofing your trash cans and bird feeders, as well as deterring bears through loud noises when they’re on your property can ensure that you enjoy each other’s company from a safe distance.

Threats To Black Bears

Black bears are not an endangered species, although subspecies of black bear (like the Louisiana Black Bear, found in wetlands) were listed as vulnerable and endangered in the past.

Louisiana Black Bear

The biggest threat to bears is humans. When we don’t interact with bears safely, bears get labeled as a nuisance and killed. Bears also get hit by cars or accidentally poisoned/injured by human garbage.

More broadly, however, bears are at risk, just like we are, from climate change. Warmer weather means that some of their food sources may change: come out at different times of the year, produce less seed/offspring, or die off entirely. Warmer weather also affects how well bears can hibernate and how long they have to hunt for food while they’re awake. As natural disasters increase from climate change, bears are also subject to many of the same problems that we’re facing: hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, and forest fires.

The best thing we can do as stewards of the environment is to continue to combat climate change through holding the largest greenhouse gas emitters — polluting industries like oil, gas, and wood products — to account. We also need to invest heavily in proforestation: let our forests mature into old growth, preserve high quality forests across the US South, reduce the amount of logging in forests, and take steps to improve biodiversity.

And… Action!

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