Unlike the grizzly, the black bear probably won't become a threatened or endangered species in the lower 48 states within the next few years. Nonetheless black bears, Ursus americanus, is already extinct on a local basis in many states and is listed as threatened or endangered in others — and more of these spot extinctions can be expected as an ever-increasing human population makes expanding demands on our country's shrinking wilderness and its wildlife.
But still, when compared to the seriously threatened status of grizzlies in the lower 48, black bears have several survival advantages over their bigger cousins.
Facts About Black Bears
For one thing, they enjoy a more rapid rate of reproduction. This is due in part to the differing lengths of time grizzly and black bear mothers keep their cubs before casting them off. While grizzly mothers stay with their young for 30 months or more, black bear matrons typically boot their cubs out after only 16 months. And since mother bears with young in tow don't breed, a black bear female wall produce more cubs in her lifetime than will a grizzly.
Another factor working in their favor is that black bears are more tolerant of humans than grizzlies are, and thus can hang on in areas that are too densely settled to make survival realistic for the bigger bruins with their greater needs and visibility. Nevertheless, black bears are often killed when civilization invades the wilds and the bears — finding ranch, farm, homestead, or subdivision where their favorite berry patch used to be — are forced by hunger to prey on the livestock or pets brought by humans into bear country. Some sheep herders are among the worst offenders here, often shooting bears on sight. (One sheepman reportedly killed seven black bears in a single summer.)
In his book Bear Attacks, researcher Steve Herrero reports that he has been able to verify 20 cases in which people were killed by black bears in North America from 1900 through 1980. That's about half the number killed by grizzlies during the same period. Consequently since black bears aren't perceived as being as dangerous as grizzlies — there has been less pressure to eliminate them in the name of human safety.
The major force working against black bears is dwindling forest habitat. Ursus americanus evolved as a forest-dependent species, and rarely ventures into open country. Heavily timbered areas provide black bears with food and protection from inclement weather, hide them when necessary, and give them trees to climb in order to escape immediate danger.
But prime forest habitat is rapidly being destroyed for human use via deforestation for subdivisions and urban-suburban sprawl, as well as by the unrelenting advance of the agriculture, mining, livestock, and timber industries. And the water and air pollution that follow these scratchings of civilization compound the problem even more.
In short, the continued survival of bears in the wild — both black bears and grizzlies — will depend on how humanity treats not just the animals themselves, but planet Earth as well.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Lance Olsen is president of the Great Bear Foundation (GBF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to insuring the survival and welfare of wild bears. Individual GBF memberships are $12 annually ($20 family) and include a one-year (four-issue) subscription to the highly informative Bear News. For more information, write the Great Bear Foundation, Missoula, MT.