The mighty black bear are the foundation of many myths, stories, and folklore in our society. And I have to admit, when we saw the bear pictured below on the Appalachian Trail it was the highlight of our backpacking trip! But before you accept the ferocious teeth-baring image of the movies, here are some bear facts that you should know.
The black bear are commonly found in the thick forest and swampy cover of the Appalachian mountain region of the eastern United States. They are also found in other similar habitats across the U.S., predominately in the thick cover of redwoods along the Pacific, the spruce areas of the Rocky Mountains, and the vegetated mountain regions of the Southwest.
Black bear are typically 4-7 feet long from nose to tail. They can range from 2-3 feet tall at their shoulder height. And their fur might appear shaggy or sleek depending on the season. Their claws are more curved than their Grisly Bear cousins which aids in their ability to climb trees. Adult bears can stand up and reach nearly 7-8 feet in the air, but do not have much ability to vertically leap any higher. If you hang those food bags 10 feet or higher, they should be out of reach of all of the hungry bears.
Large adult black bears can weight over 750 pounds. The heaviest bear known was weighed in at 880 pounds! Bears are usually heaviest in the Fall and can lose 100 pounds during the winter and almost another 100 pounds during mating season. Adult bears reach their full size and weight at age 12 for male bears and 6 for female bears. Bear are thought to be able to live as long as 30 years old, but sadly most of them don’t make it to 10 years old due to human interactions (cars, trapping, hunters, etc…). In some regions, their life expectancy is as little as 3-4 years.
Mating season for bears is late May to early July. Most bears are born between mid-January to early February. A liter of bear cubs is usually 2-3 cubs. Cubs can stay with the Sal (their Mom) for up to 17 months before heading on into their own territory.
Bears are known for their ability to smell, but they also have very good hearing (2x better than humans) and they have accurate color vision of objects that are short-range and up close. Their diet consists mostly of vegetation, grasses, shrubs, summer fruits, nuts, acorns, and insects such as beetles. Black bear are not active predators and most of the animal-portion of their diet comes from carrion (dead, decaying flesh…the forest equivalent of road kill).
Bear are also very good swimmers and can easily cross rivers, creeks and lakes. So…yes…you still need to have a bear bag for that island camping trip ;-). They’re also fairly fast, as some lean bears are estimated to run as fast as 30 mph!
Bear are timid by nature and have been known to flee from small hunting dogs and unidentified noises. They are usually motivated by fear over food, but their pursuit of food is usually what causes most human encounters.
The black bear is a stately icon of the great outdoors. It is good to be cautious and avoid encounters by keeping food away from the tent. If their curiosity brings them close to you, it’s best to distance yourself from the food smells that brought them to you. Chances are good that once they see you or sense potential danger, they will quickly flee the area.