From the team at BBC Wildlife Magazine

Black bear guide: how to identify, where to find them and what to do if you encounter one

Find out all the black bear facts you've always wanted to know, as well as the best places to see black bears in the wild.

Black bear in high ferns and vegetation
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The black bear Ursus americanus is one of three bear species found on this vast continent, along with the brown bear (which can also be known as the grizzly bear) and polar bear. Of the three, the black bear is the most commonly encountered and is distributed across most of the USA and Canada. The word 'black' is something of a misnomer, as these bears can also be blue-black, cinnamon, brown or even white. They can also be tricky to tell apart from grizzly bears. Read on to learn all about this iconic American mammal, where you can encounter it and how it spends its time.

How big are black bears?

The black bear is the smallest, yet most common, of the three bear species found in America (after the polar bear and grizzly bear). It's 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.

Female black bear in Ontario, Canada
Female black bears might be smaller than males, but they're not little! © mlorenzphotography/Getty

Black bears are incredibly strong, able to casually flip boulders weighing over 140kg with a single paw.


Where do black bears live?

Black bears are only found in North America. The species ranges from Canada in the north to Mexico in the south, and lives predominantly in forests, feeding on fruit, nuts, shoots and vegetation.

Across their entire range throughout North America, black bears are thought to have a total population of around 800,000.

A mama black bear and her two cubs walk on the road near a lake in the Canadian Rocky Mountains in Jasper, Alberta
These black bears are lucky enough to live in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada. © mlorenzphotography/Getty

Grizzly bear vs black bear

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.

Grizzly bear roaring in forest
A polar bear might be able to take on this grizzly, but a black bear wouldn't do so well. © Byrdyak/Getty

Top species to photograph in British Columbia – and how to get the best shot

Award-winning wildlife photographer Matt Maran reveals his tips for photographing the top five species in this area in North America, including orcas, humpback whales and black bears.

Humpback whale. ©Matt Maran/Nature Picture Library.


Can black bears climb trees?

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.

A black bear cub clinging to a tree trunk in Ontario
A black bear cub clinging to a tree trunk in Ontario. © Keith Szafranski/Getty

Can black bears swim?

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 bear (Ursus americanus) swimming in Tongass National Forest, Alaska
Black bear swimming in Tongass National Forest, Alaska. © Bob Gurr/Getty

Black bear lifespan

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.


Are black bears always black?

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 bear in birch forest, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada
This black bear is more brown than black, with lots of ginger fur on its back. © Manuel Romaris/Getty

With a population of no more than 400 left in the wild, spirit bears are some of the world's rarest mammals - but also among the most incredible.

Check out our list of 10 spirit bear facts you need to know!

Photo © Ken Canning/Getty

Kermode (Spirit) Bear hunting for salmon in Canada's Great Bear Rainforest

How many cubs do black bears have?

Female black bears can give birth to up to six cubs, but typically have two to three, and usually breed every other year. Cubs stay with their mother for about 18 months.

A mother black bear with 3 cubs
A mother black bear with 3 cubs. © Mark Moore/Getty

Why do bears steal human food?

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.

Black bear raiding house garbage. Summer. Rocky Mountains. Ursus americanus.
Black bear raiding house garbage. © Thomas Kitchin & Victoria Hurst/Getty

Hunting black bears

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.

Black bear cub climbing tree trunk
Hunters can now shoot and bait bear cubs and hibernating bears on national wildlife refuges in Alaska after Trump overturned a ban. © Daniel Friend/Getty

What should you do if you see a black bear?

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.

Female black bear and cubs
Female black bears with cubs can be particularly dangerous if they feel their cubs are threatened. © W. Drew Senter/Longleaf Photography/Getty

The best places to see black bears in the US

Tongass National Forest, Alaska

Iceberg floating in front of misty woodland in Tongass National Forest
Tongass National Forest is a beautiful and remote area of South East Alaska that's great for spotting black bears. © VW Pics/Getty

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.

Tofino, British Columbia

Female black bear with her two cubs, Tofino, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada © wanderluster / Getty
Female black bear with cubs in Tofino, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. © wanderluster/Getty

On the west coast of Vancouver Island, Tofino offers a fantastic wilderness adventure and the densest populations of black bears in the world.

In mid-summer they can easily be seen on the rocky foreshores, where they wander at low tide to feast on crabs and fish. Orcas and grey and humpback whales are also common.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho

Geothermal pool with steam rising in Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is one of the most spectacular, and most popular, national parks in the US, and it's fantastic for bear watching! © Chung Hu/Getty

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.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Black bear (Ursus americanus) cub descending tree in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, USA
Black bear descending tree in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. © Don Johnston/Getty

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 National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina

Still water reflecting the forest trees under a blue sky in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. © Moelyn Photos/Getty

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.


Sarah McPhersonFeatures editor, BBC Wildlife Magazine

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