Black bear (Ursus americanus) – Estes Park Trail-Gazette

  • Courtesy of James Taulman

  • James Taulman

This bear is native to North America and ranges across most of Canada and parts of the forests of the United States, from the northeast to the Gulf States, Missouri and Arkansas, from the mountains of the New Mexico and Arizona, to the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast Ranges. .The bear inhabits most of Colorado except the eastern plains. The current US population is estimated at around 400,000 and is declining only in Idaho and New Mexico. This total does not include the states of Alaska, Idaho, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming, where there are no estimates of black bear numbers. The species was formerly present in all states except the desert, but has disappeared from areas of human settlement and crop and grazing lands.

There are many races or subspecies of black bears. Colorado has two. One is the so-called New Mexico race, Uaamblyceps, found in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of western Texas and southeastern Utah. This bear has several color phases, from black to brown to a cinnamon color, the latter being a common phase. The other race, Uacinnamomum, is commonly called the cinnamon bear. It is found from northern Colorado, western Wyoming and Montana, Idaho, Oregon, northeastern Utah, and eastern Washington. Males can weigh over 400 pounds, but normally weigh 300 pounds or less. Females are smaller and weigh around 180 pounds. They are good tree climbers and often stand up and scrape tree bark with their long claws to leave scent marks identifying their territorial ownership. They also rub their bodies against tree trunks for the same reason.

Bears are solitary and have fairly large territories. The average home range is around 25 square miles for males and 5-7 square miles for females. A University of Arkansas graduate student conducted a study in the late 1990s to track the movements of so-called “nuisance” bears (those seen on the property of people living in remote wooded areas and reported to biologists at the state). These bears had been captured by state wildlife biologists and moved to more remote areas where they were released. Radio transmitter collars were attached to captured bears. The student found that these displaced bears roamed widely, after being released into another bear’s territory, they were then forced to move to avoid conflict with the resident bear. One individual was tracked traveling from northwest Arkansas through urbanized land, communities and highways, to Little Rock in the central part of the state.

Bears walk on the soles of their feet, like humans, a method described as plantigrade. They generally appear slow and deliberative in their movements, but are capable of running at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. Black bears have good vision and an even better sense of smell. They are also good swimmers. Bears have several sounds and vocalizations, including growls, moans, tongue clicks, teeth clicks, and hisses.

I once watched from afar as a black bear and her cub approach my tent site in the open tundra of the Washington Cascades. The female walked slowly followed by the young. She first saw my tent when she was about 30 meters away and immediately turned and sped away from it, not paying attention to the little one who followed her at full gallop.

The photos below show another similar encounter where a cub was not present.

James Taulman

James Taulman

I learned from this how fear of humans can be passed from one generation of bears to the next, even without any negative interactions occurring. The cub had probably never seen his terrified mother before and had learned from that experience that humans and their equipment were potentially dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.

Black bears are omnivores and have historically adapted to forested and scrubby habitats due to competition with larger, more aggressive grizzly bears, which favored more open land. The eradication of bears from human-occupied areas or developed landscapes has also moved bears to less populated remote areas. More than three quarters of their diet consists of vegetation, such as grasses and herbaceous plants of wetlands, tree buds and shoots, and large amounts of fruits and berries during the summer. Fall staples are “hard poled” items like acorns, pine nuts, and other hardwood nuts and seeds. Animal foods include insects like bees, wasps and ants. They are renowned for their love of honey and will tear down trees containing bee hives. In areas where fish are available, they will take what they can catch. They will also take infants from several species of mammals, such as deer, elk or moose. Eggs and birds in the nest are favorite foods.

Black bears will attack containers of human food waste left in camping areas, for the easy, nutrient-rich buffet available there. These litter-seeking bears pose the greatest risk to humans, as they become habituated to human presence and will even defend a litter site if approached. Normally, the worst encounter a human will have with a black bear will be a bluff charge against someone who has ventured too close. Actual black bear attacks are very rare. Biologist Hans Kruuk compiled data on more than 1,000 instances of black bear interactions with humans over a 13-year period in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and found that just over 100 had resulted in injuries. And most of those incidents involved bears in areas where they were regularly fed by humans.

Bears hibernate during the coldest winter months, normally entering torpor in October and November. They can nest in natural caves or other cavities in trees or ground banks, often in shelters they dig. The physiology of bear hibernation is rather unusual. Although their basal metabolic rate may decrease by up to a quarter of the normal rate, they do not experience a major drop in temperature and may even wake up in mild winter weather and while foraging. They do not lose significant bone mass during the long months of inactivity and only experience about half the muscle loss that an inactive human would experience. However, a black bear can lose 25-40% of its body mass during a period of winter hibernation.

The black bear hunting season in Colorado lasts from the first week of September to the last week of November. The dates for the 2022 season are: archery season, September 2-30; muzzle loading, September 10-18; and rifle seasons are September 2-30, limited; season 1, October 15-19; season 2, from October 29 to November 6; season 3, from November 12 to 18; season 4, from November 23 to 27; and on private land, from September 2 to November 27. Bears killed by hunters must be presented to a Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife officer within 5 days, along with data on the bear’s age, sex, and location. Contact Colorado Parks and Wildlife for licensing information.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife reports that the 2021 results for bear hunting were 1,474 bear kills (942 boar, 532 sow) representing all the “ways to take” of 33,396 hunters. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the black bear as a species of least concern due to its abundance and population stability.

Personally, I prefer to “take” a bear using photography, leaving it free to live its normal life and available to be enjoyed by the next traveler in the wild.

James Taulman is a semi-retired wildlife biologist who travels to observe wildlife in New Mexico and the Southwest.
James Taulman is a semi-retired wildlife biologist who travels to observe wildlife in New Mexico and the Southwest.

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