The black bear is a North American native and ranges across most of Canada and parts of the forested, mountainous United States, from the northeast, to the Rocky Mountains, and west coast mountains. The current U.S. population is estimated to be in the neighborhood of 400,000 and is only decreasing in Idaho and New Mexico. That 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 previously occurred throughout all but the desert states, but has been extirpated from regions of human settlement and farming and grazing lands.
There are many races of black bears. The New Mexico race, U.a. amblyceps, has several color phases, from black to brown to a cinnamon color, the latter being the most common phase. I have seen at least two black bears in the East Mountains; one was cinnamon and the other brown. Males may weigh over 400 pounds but are normally 300 pounds or less. Females are smaller and top out at about 180 pounds. They are good tree climbers and will often stand up and scratch at tree bark with their long claws to leave scent marks identifying their territory. They also rub their bodies against tree trunks for the same reason.
Bears are solitary and have rather large territories. Average home range is about 25 square miles for males and 5-7 square miles for females. A graduate student at the University of Arkansas conducted a study in the late 1990s to track the movements of so-called “nuisance” bears (those sighted on the property of people living in remote forested areas). These bears had been captured by state wildlife biologists and relocated to more remote areas where they were released. Radio transmitter collars were attached to captured bears. The student found that these bears roamed widely, having been inserted into some other bear’s territory and then having to move on to avoid conflict with the resident bear. One individual was tracked traveling from northwestern Arkansas across urbanized lands, communities, and highways, as far as Little Rock.
Bears walk on the soles of their feet, like humans, a method described as plantigrade. They typically seem slow and deliberative in movements but are capable of running at speeds 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 grunts, moans, tongue clicking, tooth chattering, and huffing.
I once watched from a distance as a black bear and cub approached my tent site out in the open tundra in the Washington Cascades. The female was walking slowly followed by the cub. She saw my tent for the first time when about 30 meters away and immediately turned and ran at full speed away from it, paying no attention to the cub, which followed her at full gallop. I learned from this how a fear of humans can be passed on to the next generation even without the need for any negative interaction. The cub had probably never seen its mother that terrified before and learned from that experience to avoid any contact with humans or their trappings.
Black bears are omnivorous and have historically become adapted to forest and brushland habitats as a result of competition with larger, more aggressive grizzly bears, which favored more open lands. Eradication of bears from areas occupied by humans or developed landscapes, has also moved bears into less settled remote regions. More than three-quarters of their diet consists of vegetation, such as wetland grasses and forbs, tree buds and shoots, and large quantities of fruits and berries during summer. Fall staples are “hard mast” items like acorns, pine nuts, and other hardwood tree nuts and seeds. Animal foods include insects like bees, wasps, and ants. They are fond of honey and will tear into trees containing beehives. In areas where fish are available, they will take what they can catch. They also will take infants of several mammal species, such as deer, elk, or moose. Eggs and nestling birds are favorite foods.
Black bears will raid human food waste containers left in camping areas, for the easy nutrient rich buffet available there. Those trash foraging bears pose the greatest risk to humans, as they become habituated to human presence and will even defend a trash site if approached. At worst, black bears will normally bluff charge a human that has ventured too close. Actual attacks by black bears are very rare. Biologist Hans Kruuk compiled data on over 1,000 instances of black bear interactions with humans during a 13-year period in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and found that just over 100 resulted in injury. 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 may den in natural caves or other cavities in trees or soil banks, often in shelters they hollow out. The physiology of bear hibernation is rather unusual. Though their basal metabolic rate may decrease to one-quarter the normal rhythm, they do not experience a large drop in temperature and may even waken during mild winter weather and forage. They do not lose significant bone mass during long months of inactivity, and only suffer about half the muscle loss that an inactive human would experience. A black bear may lose 25-40% of body mass during a winter hibernation period, however.
I commonly see black bears at my remote cameras on South Mountain and got my first sighting in April 2020, so I assume that the individual had come out of hibernation some time early that month.
There is a hunting season for black bears in New Mexico that varies in duration somewhat by zone but is generally from mid-August through the mid-November. The NM Department of Game and Fish publishes sport hunting limits at 14 zones across the state, totaling 804 bears that may be taken, out of an estimated statewide population of about 8,000 individuals.
James Taulman is a semi-retired research wildlife biologist, having worked with the U.S. Forest Service research branch and taught zoology, ecology, and other courses in several university positions. He is currently living in the East Mountains, and explores natural areas observing native wildlife and conducting independent research projects.