The black bear Ursus americanus is the smallest, yet most common, of the three bear species found in America (after the polar bear and grizzly bear). They’re still pretty big though! Black bear weight varies enormously depending on age, sex and time of year – black bears can be 30% heavier in autumn than they are in spring.
As a result, adult black bears can weigh anywhere from 45-250kg. According to one study in California, adult female black bears weighed an average of 58kg, while males weighed 86kg on average. Black bears living in Alaska that can feed extensively on salmon weigh around 30kg more.
Grizzly bears tend to live in more open areas, while black bears prefer densely forested mountainous regions, but there is still considerable overlap between the two. If a grizzly bear and a black bear were to get into a fight, you should definitely be putting your money on the grizzly. Grizzly bears are significantly larger, more powerful and more aggressive – a black bear might be able to put up a fight, but it’s not going to win.
Black bears are excellent climbers and are often photographed scaling trees. Their claws give them great grip, and the branches offer youngsters safety from predators. Cubs can be very adventurous, climbing high into the treetops.
Black bears are also good swimmers, and will readily enter water in search of fish. Black bear cubs take to the water easily and quickly. One of our favourite black bear facts is that one adult is believed to have swum nine miles along the Gulf of Mexico.
Black bears live for an average of 18 years in the wild, but the record is an impressive 39 years. The oldest captive black bear was 44 years old when it died.
How fast can a black bear run?
Black bears tend to shuffle along slowly when walking, but are able to run at speeds of around 40-50kph. However, they cannot maintain this pace for long. Plump bears in heavy winter coats tire out particularly quickly.
Despite their name, black bears are not always black – they can also be light brown, blond or even grey-blue. A subspecies of black bear with white fur, known as the Kermode or spirit bear, lives in British Columbia.
Black bears will leave the forest and travel many miles to seek food, entering back gardens and campsites. They have an exceptional sense of smell, leading them to seek out food items in rubbish bins and outdoor storage facilities. They are also perfectly capable of breaking into cars.
According to Born Free USA, black bears can be legally hunted in 27 states in America, and between 40,000 to 50,000 bears are legally hunted there each year. More are illegally poached, and many are killed in car accidents as well.
If you come across a black bear at close range, the usual advice is to retreat slowly, still facing the bear. Do not run. Black bears are known to make mock-charges to within a few metres – if they do this, stand your ground and shout.
Most people travel to Alaska to see brown and polar bears, so a place where black bears are the centre of attention is unusual. But this is the case at the Anan Wildlife Observatory in Tongass National Forest.
In July and August black bears gather at a waterfall just below a viewing platform to feed on spawning pink salmon. For the best experience, stay overnight at the Anan Bay Cabin.
Yellowstone National Park is the only place where you can easily see black bears amid other charismatic wildlife such as bison, elk, moose, grizzlies and wolves. But this is a huge park, so it helps to hire a wildlife expert as your guide.
The deciduous forests of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are among the best places to spot black bears in the eastern USA.
Though the park has a high density of bears, they can be skittish and difficult to watch – except along Cades Cove Loop Road, an old homestead area with relict orchards, fruit trees and open meadows, which attracts lots of bears between April and October.
Alligator River was established on the North Carolina seashore to protect a remnant of the unique wetland habitat called ‘pocosin’, but it is also one of the last remaining strongholds for black bears on the Eastern Seaboard.
In the Milltail section of the refuge, black bears wander out from swampy thickets to feed in nearby fields, and in summer you can join a ‘sunset tour’ that includes an opportunity to see bears at night. Alternatively, drive the Milltail Road on your own.