Bear Watching

The black bear Ursus americanus is one of the most familiar wild animals in North America today. To many campers it is both a nuisance and an exciting part of their outdoor experience. Most visitors to Canada's provincial and national parks are disappointed if they fail to catch a glimpse of a bear.

Bear Signs

It is easy to find signs of black bears. Looking for food, they roll or turn over logs and stones, break up rotted stumps, tear up berry patches, and dig holes in the ground.

They also have 'bear trees'. These are trees with teeth marks as high as a bear can reach with its mouth, and great claw scratches higher than that. Most markings are done during the breeding season in late spring or early summer (from mid-June to mid-July).

Biologists think that trees repeatedly clawed and marked by bears serve as a form of communication. Adult males use these trees most frequently, presumably to advertise their presence to potential mates or potential rivals.

Black bears are extremely fond of garbage and frequently congregate at dumps. This habit occasionally leads them into contact with people who enjoy observing the feeding antics of the bears, especially the younger ones. Signs that bear have been foraging at a garbage dump is large amounts of scat left behind and bear tracks

When people watch bears in the wild they should never forget that these are wild animals that must be treated with caution. They should not be fed. Most bears will hastily retreat if a person approaches too closely, but one should not take unnecessary chances, as bears, like people, are sometimes unpredictable. They are interesting to observe and photograph, but they can be dangerous at close quarters.

Never Feed a Black Bear

Have you wondered why people should never feed a black bear?

Black bears have a natural fear of man. They are very shy and frightened by humans. Most simply run away when they see or hear humans in their area. Bears can lose this fear of humans when they learn that humans are a source of food. Some campgrounds in the past have had open garbage dumps nearby. Bears quickly learn that this is an easy source of food and begin to lose their natural fear of man. People who feed bears are also teaching the bear that man is a source of food. Bears then begin to raid campgrounds and easily rip down tents and open coolers to find all kinds of great food.

The black bear now becomes a real problem around humans. It is destructive and makes camping in its habitat very difficult. Once the bear has developed the habit of eating human food, it will not return to its natural wild diet. Bears that have been captured alive and moved many kilometres away simply return. The bears have to be shot. At one time, 40 to 50 bears had to be destroyed each summer in Algonquin Park.

The situation has now improved. Campgrounds and parks use 'bear-proof' garbage cans. The collected garbage is also placed in large sheds that the bears cannot open. The bears don't get 'hooked' on human food and must continue to eat food from the forests. This keeps them away from campsites and they will keep their natural fear of man.

One must remember that bears can be very dangerous and can sometimes attack when threatened or surprised. Mother bears can be very dangerous when they feel their cubs are in danger. Bears are usually frightened by man, and this keeps us safe when hiking and camping in the bears' habitat. If people feed bears, then bears lose their fear of man and attack more frequently.

By following these simple rules you help prevent the black bears from being shot. You also help protect campers from having their property destroyed by a black bear. Here are the three bear rules used by Algonquin Park.

SAFETY RULES: If you are hiking in bear country, here are some safety rules to follow:

  1. 1. Travel in groups and not alone.
  2. Make lots of noise if you see signs of bears.
  3. If you come across a bear don't run away but slowly move to safety.
  4. Never feed or approach a bear.
  5. Store all your food in the trunk of your car (or suspend it high up between two trees if you are in the interior)
  6. Burn all the garbage you can in your campfire, and put the rest in the bear-proof containers provided.

Bear Attacks

Incidents of black bears attacking humans have been reported. These attacks were usually made by bears that had been feeding on garbage or by animals in extremely poor physical condition due to old age, disease, or wounds.

Otherwise, black bears in the wild usually avoid direct contact with humans. Most bears usually will walk or run the other way if people come into their area. But there are a growing number of dangerous bears around garbage dumps and campgrounds who have learned that people mean food. These bears would rather eat garbage and camp foods than wild foods. They think of people as competitors for their food and are very dangerous.


In the early days of European settlement, both the native Indians and the white settlers bear hunters made their living hunting and trapping bears , wolves, and cougars for sport, food,clothing and because of their presumed danger to livestock and perhaps people as well. In fact, most black bears kill few large mammals and can not be classified as predators in the same manner as wolves, weasels, or polar bears. Black bear populations began to decline as the human population grew due to unrestricted hunting and trapping and habitat destruction.

Today the black bear is still hunted but the harvest is strictly regulated with set seasons and bag limits. They are now prized as game animals, because they are large and elusive and test the skills of hunters and because bear meat if properly prepared is considered highly palatable by many fanciers of wild game. Bear hunting is primarily done by the use of dogs which pick up the scent of a bear and then follow and eventually "tree" the animal. Regulated sport hunting is not a threat to the black bear population but there is a major problem with illegal hunting.

Many black bears are killed by poachers for a variety of parts including the teeth, claws, and especially the gall bladder which is sought after as an aphrodisiac. One gall bladder can be worth several thousand dollars on the black market. This illegal trade in black bear parts is one of the biggest threats to their existence today.


Black bears are large mammals, which is 90 to 105 cm tall at the shoulders, 140 to 190 cm long and weighs 92 to 267 kg. At 110 to 267 kg, males are much larger than females which weigh 92 to 204 kg. Some large black bears weighing over 290 kg have been recorded

The general coloration of the black bear is bluish black but occasionally they may be brownish or even cinnamon colored. The muzzle is brown and there may be a sometimes with whitish "V" on chest patch on the upper region of the chest. Albinos are rare.

The tail is short, the eyes small, and the ears are small and rounded.

An adult black bear has a moderate sized head with a rather straight facial profile and a tapered nose with long nostrils. Its lips, unlike those of other animals such as the wolf or bobcat, are free from the gums and can be manipulated with amazing dexterity. This adaptation and a long manipulative tongue greatly assist the bear when it feast on tiny blueberries or even tinier ants. The ears are rounded and the eyes small. The tail is very short and inconspicuous.

Black bears walk flat-footed and are known as plantigrades.

A black bear has feet that are well furred, on which it walks like a human being with the entire bottom portion of the foot touching the ground. Each foot has five long, powerful, nonretractable claws. These are very strong and are used for digging and tearing out roots, stumps, and old logs when searching for food.

Habitat and Behavior

Although found in a variety of habitats, the black bear prefers heavily wooded areas of oak, hickory, mixed hardwood forests and dense bushland.

Bears start to be most active at dusk, and continue being active during the night in spring and summer. When fall comes, they must spend more daylight hours hunting to build up a large fat reserve for the winter. Because they eat more plants than any other bear, most of their food disappears with the first snows.

Black bears appear awkward as they shuffle along, but can move with amazing speed when necessary. From a standing start, a bear can run 90 metres in 6.8 seconds. For short distances they have been clocked at speeds of up to 55 km/h. They are good swimmers and frequently cross rivers and small lakes and can swim many kilometres if needed.

Climbing trees is also not a problem for the black bear. They climb with a series of quick bounds, grasping the tree with their forepaws and pushing with their hind legs. When descending they travel backwards, frequently dropping from the tree from heights up to 4.5 m. Once on the ground, they quickly disappear into the underbrush, apparently unshaken by the abrupt descent. This is one of the first lessons the mother bear teaches her young. At a given signal, the cub learns to scramble up a tree for safety and to remain there until given permission by the mother to return to the ground. The black bear has been seen climbing up apple trees to eat one of its favourite foods. A large bear often destroys the trees because the branches are just not strong enough to hold its weight.

The eyesight of the black bear is relatively poor, but its senses of hearing and smell are well developed. A startled animal will usually attempt to get downwind from an intruder and make an identification by smell. Under favourable atmospheric conditions bears can detect carrion, which they scavenge, at considerable distances. Frequently, a black bear will stand on its hind legs with its nose in the air and scent the wind for any delectable odours.


Although it is rarely heard, the black bear has several distinct calls. These include a growl of anger, a whining call, and sniffs of many sorts. Bears make moaning and teeth chattering sounds to threaten other bears. A female with cubs may warn them of danger with a loud woof-woof and call them in with a whining or whimpering sound. The cry of a young cub in trouble is similar to the crying of a human baby. Females with cubs are often aggressive if the cubs are threatened.

The activity pattern of black bears varies from area to area depending on a number of factors, including human activities. In wilderness areas they are usually most active from dawn until dark, whereas bears in areas with high human activity may be mainly nocturnal to avoid contact with people. Of course, some individuals solicit human contact in hopes of obtaining a free meal.

Like most animals, they have customary routes of travel, which they regularly follow as they move from one area to another. Old time bear hunters took advantage of this and frequently set their traps along these well used trails.

Black bears are naturally a shy and solitary animal but when its territory overlaps with that of man, the bear can be a nuisance and a danger. It is common for black bears to be trapped in populated areas and then relocated back into the wilderness at a considerable distance.

Generally bears avoid human contact and are not normally agressive towards people. The only exceptions to this are so called "park bears" which are fed and lose their natural fear of humans.


In the autumn when days become shorter and temperatures cooler, bears begin to search for a denning site. A suitable site may be under a tree stump or overturned log, or in a hole in a hillside. Most dens are only large enough to accommodate a bear when it is curled up. Generally, females line their dens with grass, ferns, or leaves, but males usually do not. Females usually den earlier, males frequently wait until the first snowfall before entering a den.

Black bears are not true hibernators. They then lay down and go into a still or dormant stage, bears do not have to eat or eliminate waste and live off their reserves of fat. Fat may account for 40 percent of the bear's weight in late autumn. The heart and muscle actions slow down but body temperature is only slightly lower and does not go down as in a hibernating mammal.

Since black bears are not true hibernators, most bears bears will wake up and give chase if prodded sufficiently. If the weather becomes exceptionally warm some bears may wake up and wander around for short periods during the winter months.

For some black bears in Northern Ontario, this dormant stage may last almost half of the year.

With the coming of spring and warmer weather, bears emerge from their dens and search for food. During the winter they may have lost up to 30 % of their predenning weight. Most bears continue to lose weight during the early summer period until mid-July when quantities of berries start to become available.


Black bears are omnivorous and will eat almost anything available. Most of their food is vegetation, especially in the late summer and autumn when berries and nuts are available. Favourite fruits include blueberries, buffalo berries, strawberries, elderberries, saskatoons, black cherries, and apples. Acorns, hazelnuts, and beechnuts are other preferred foods. Insects such as ants and grasshoppers rate high, and black bears will overturn logs, old stumps, and stones while foraging.

Fish, small mammals, and occasionally birds are also on the black bear's menu. In the spring some bears may prey upon newborn moose calves, deer fawns, caribou calves, or elk calves. Carrion of any sort is highly prized and its attractiveness to a bear increases with its degree of decomposition. Of course a tree containing honey is always a treat. Bears drink frequently and are usually found in the vicinity of water.

Bears growing up around populated areas, however, have come to associate man with food. Sightings at garbage dumps, logging camps and picnic grounds have become frequent.

Black bears eat well in the summer and fall months to accumulate a heavy layer of fat to support them through a winter-long hibernation period.

Occasionally bears cause trouble when they prey on livestock or upset beehives in an apiary. Usually incidents of this type are caused by one or two individuals and the problem is solved by their removal.


The black bear is the commonest bear found in Canada. Common throughout Northwestern Ontario, primarily in forested areas; also swamps. Frequently at garbage dumps and logging camps.

Black bears are capable of travelling great distances biologists who have live trapped bears and removed them 80 km or more from their home ranges have sometimes been surprised by the bears' return. The home ranges of females are usually quite restricted. Ranges of adult males encompass several female ranges.

Maximum numbers are probably attained in areas of mixed coniferous deciduous forests. Densities in favourable habitats are one bear to every 3-4 square km. Black bears are difficult to census because they are shy and secretive. A recent estimate of the continental population is 500 000, give or take 200 000!

Male bears tend to roam much more than the females.

Breeding Biology

Black bears are solitary animals, except for the close bond between females and cubs, and the pairing that takes place during the mating season.

Male bears take five or six years to mature. Male bears continue to grow until their seventh year; females cease growth somewhat earlier. Female bears usually begin breeding at about 3 to 5 years of age and usually mate every other year producing 1- 3 cubs. In captivity Males and females may attain sexual maturity between their third and fourth years.

Mating is in June or early July, males seek out females and mate quickly. Male bears then leave the females or sows and have nothing to do with them the rest of the year.

Females give birth to their cubs during the winter in late January or early February while the sow is in her den.

At birth they are 15-20 cm long and weigh slightly more than 225 g and are almost hairless. Compared to other mammals, this is very small relative to the mother's weight.

They suckle and nestle into her long fur for warmth. The mother bear often lies on her back or side to feed her cubs but sometimes sits on her haunches and holds her cubs on her lap much like a human mother. The young bears grow rapidly and are quite active by the time they leave the den with their mother in the spring.

At one year they weigh from 13 to 27 kg but only slightly more at two years.

Normally, young bears remain with their mother until the second summer when they are 16-17 months old. They are very playful and investigate everything.

Cubs orphaned during their first summer have about a 30 % chance of surviving to independence compared to about an 80% chance for those with mothers.


Black bears can live for 25 to 30 years in the wild, but few live longer than 10 years because of human hunting. Thousands are shot by hunters in Ontario each year.

Other than man, black bears have few enemies in Ontario. Predators include older bears, wolves may attack young bears or a pack may attack females and occasionally lynx. This seldom happens. More bears die from starvation, accidents and disease than from natural enemies.

In areas where bears are hunted, legal hunting is one of the major mortality factors, especially for bears two years of age and older. Males are usually shot before females because they are less cautious and travel more widely. Females become more vulnerable with increased hunting pressure. .

Some black bears harbour parasites such as tapeworms and roundworms, but these seem to have little effect on the bear's health. In general, wild black bears have remarkably few internal or external parasites. From a public health viewpoint, trichinosis, which is caused by a nematode or roundworm, is probably the most important parasite of bears. As people can become infected, all bear meat should be cooked carefully before consumption.

Recently, the increasing demand for bear gall bladders, bear paws, and other parts that are believed to have medicinal and aphrodisiacal value has caused concern about increased illegal killing of bears. In certain parts of the world a dried gall from a wild bear may sell for up to $50 000.

In 1992, to limit illegal killing of black bears and international trafficking in gall bladders from wild bears (including endangered Asian bears), the 115 countries (including Canada) that were Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to list the black bear on Appendix II to the Convention. Since that date, a hunter wishing to transport any part of a black bear through customs of any country that is a member of CITES has had to obtain a CITES export permit from the exporting country.


A balck bear's print is about the size of a human print but is wider and shows claw marks and the inner toe rarely shows. The fontfoot has a small heel pad and the hind foot has a big heeel pad. While walking the prints show a pigeon-toed double register of the hind print over the front. At a faster pace the hind oversteps the front.



Fore Prints

Length: 4.0 - 6.3 in (10 - 16 cm)
Width: 3.8 - 5.5 in (9.7 - 14 cm)

Hind Prints

Length: 6.0 - 7.0 in (15 - 18 cm)
Width: 3.5 - 5.5 in (8.9 - 14 cm)


9.0 - 15 in (23 - 38 cm)


Walking: 17 - 23 in (43 - 58 cm)

Size (Male > Female)

Height: 3.0 - 3.5 ft (91 - 110 cm)
Length: 5.0 - 6.0 ft (1.5 - 1.8 m)


200 - 600 lb (91 - 270 kg)