Facts About Black Bears

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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.

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.