The Black Bear (Ursus americanus) is an apex predator, meaning that it is on top of the food chain and fears few animals, but does fear humans. There are three species of bears in North America, the Black Bear being the most far-ranging, as it inhabits areas across North America from east to west and south to north. The other two species, Polar and Brown (Grizzly) Bears are more restricted in their ranges.
Long-lived, up to 30 years in the wild, males can weigh-in at up to 600 lbs (270 kg), while females are generally much smaller. A mere one meter tall at the shoulder, when on all fours, they readily will stand erect on their hind legs and can tower over prey, rising to 2.2 meters tall. Having what is known as plantigrade feet, they can walk on the soles of their feet like humans. This vertical posture is reserved for times when they feel threatened or are trying to reach prey or food well off the ground. They have long strong claws, can effectively climb trees, are excellent swimmers and are fast runners when need be, up to 50 km/hr. They can be a formidable presence.
They tend to be solitary, and only tolerate the presence of other bears when the sow has young or during the mating season, in early to late summer. After a gestation period of 60-70 days, 1 to 3 cubs (usually 2) are born in the winter den, in January or February. The cubs must immediately find the warmth and food the female offers or they will perish. For the next 1.5 years they will stay with her, learning to hunt and being cared for and protected by her, aggressively. Once the cubs are grown and have been chased off by the female, she will mate again to start the cycle over.
Mostly black as the name indicates, Black Bears have distinct brown muzzles and sometimes whitish patches on the chest. Western varieties are more colourful and come in shades of tan, brown, cinnamon, blond, blue/gray and even white!
Omnivorous, their food is varied and consists of tubers, roots, grasses, flowers, buds, nuts, berries, mushrooms, insects, honey (of course), fish, small and medium-sized mammals, crayfish, clams and carrion.
Bears fatten up during the fall and then ‘hibernate’ in solitary dens, sleeping through most of the long winter. In reality, they don’t really hibernate but rather enter a similar state called torpor, where they can still be roused from sleep to protect their young. In true hibernation, an animal can’t be awakened. During this time, heart, respiration and metabolic rates are all lowered to the minimum thresholds necessary to sustain life. In March or early April, they emerge, and they are hungry, explaining why we sometimes see them in urban areas at this time of year. Always an exciting event, this usually causes more risk to the bear than the people. Black Bear attacks on humans are rare, but not unprecedented.
Human/bear encounters often end poorly for the bear. A recent incident in Newmarket sparked criticism as a young bear was shot and killed, rather than being caught and released back to its normal habitat. This incident demonstrated that people presume the bear is dangerous without really knowing if they are correct. Hopefully we will get wiser as time goes by. Encroachment on wildlife habitats means we will come in contact more and more. We must learn to understand and tolerate them or the outcome will be increasingly devastating to wildlife.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, ecotour guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.