Spring means black bears are active. And they are usually hungry. Often times in the news you’ll hear a report of one roaming a neighborhood or rummaging through trash and invading bird feeders. How can you avoid a black bear encounter at your home? Here are some smart tips and advice.
Habitat and Habits
Black bears, Ursus americanus, are one of three species of bears found throughout North America—along with grizzly bears and polar bears—and are the smallest in size, and the most widespread species on the continent.
Male typically range in size from 150 to 350 pounds, with females ranging from 100 to 150 pounds. They are stocky in structure with short, thick legs. They have five toes, with claws on all of them. Their coats are generally glossy black or dark brown with a tan muzzle. Despite the name, though, some black bears are actually light brown or cinnamon in color.
Ideal black bear habitat is thick forest with a combination of coniferous and deciduous trees and some sort of wetlands, be it streams or swampy areas. Their dens can range from hollowed trees, fallen trees, rocky ledges, to small caves and brush piles. Most Black bears will camouflage their den entrances with wood, leaves, and brush, making it hard to find them in winter.
These animals enter a period of dormancy in the wintertime called “torpor,” when their heart rate slows and body temperatures become lower. They also do not eat, drink, defecate, or urinate while “denned up.” Contrary to popular belief, though, bears are not considered true hibernators, as they can, and sometimes do, wake up during this period.
A black bear’s range is rather large, and they don’t generally tolerate each other, with the exception of the sows and their cubs. Females with cubs have a home range of approximately six to nineteen square miles, while males range from twelve to sixty square miles, depending on habitat. Ranges can overlap, although not usually among those of the same sex.
Black bears are generally shy and have a keen sense of smell. Garbage can attract them from very long distances. They primarily feed and travel at night. They can run up to 35 miles per hour, are great climbers, and very strong swimmers.
What Do Black Bears Eat?
Black bears are omnivores, which means they eat berries, fruit, nuts, grasses, and herbs. They also enjoy carrion, the occasional small animal, and insects. They rarely prey on livestock or deer. One important thing to note for homeowners who live in bear country is their unequaled love of birdseed!
Black bears are slow breeders. Cubs are generally born blind and toothless in January or February, in the den. They usually weigh six to twelve ounces at birth. The sow will begin to breed anywhere from two to four years of age and will continue to breed every other year after that. The cubs generally stay with their mother until the second summer of their lives, when they begin to disperse and find their own range.
Problems, Solutions, and Health Concerns
No known bear diseases or parasites are usually transmitted to humans. While black bears, like all mammals, are susceptible to rabies, it is not really a major problem among them, and there have been no recorded occurrences of the disease being transmitted to humans by black bears at this time.
Do Black Bears Hurt Humans?
Black bears usually go to great lengths to avoid human conflict, but with the ever-expanding population growth, especially in the northeast, along with man’s steady encroachment on the black bear’s territory, more and more instances are occurring. Most of these encounters occur when mothers are protecting cubs.
To prevent black bears from getting too comfortable around your home, it’s important to keep your property clean and free from things they would consider a food source:
- Garbage: Keep your garbage containers clean and secure. If at all possible, keep them inside or in a secure garage or shed at night.
- Pet/Livestock Feed: Do not keep pet food or livestock feed outside unless the containers are airtight and odor free.
- Bird feeders should be installed at least ten feet high, and at least six feet from a tree. If a black bear is invading your bird feeders, and/or suet, STOP all bird feeding for at least a month, and clean up the area.
- Compost piles: Sprinkle lime on compost piles and apply ammonia to garbage to make them unattractive to bears.
- Grills: You should also always keep your grill cleaned, and never leave food leftovers or garbage outside after a family barbeque or picnic. These are all, of course, general recommendations, and are not guaranteed to keep black bears away from your property.
- Black bears do occasionally attack livestock and beehives. You can install electric fencing to help protect your animals, or bring them into a barn at night. You can also install electric fencing around your beehives.
- Swimming pools. While cute to watch, never try to intervene if you see a black bear (cubs or no) in your swimming pool. Best to wait it out and let them be on their way.
What Do You Do If You Encounter A Black Bear?
If you come in contact with a black bear while camping or hiking, make your presence known by making loud noises and waving your arms. If you surprise a black bear, walk away slowly, while facing the bear. Do not turn your back and run, which may trigger him to give chase. Never look a bear straight in the eye. The bear may perceive this as a threat and charge. Sometimes they will bluff charge you to within a few feet. If this happens, try to stay calm and slowly retreat, waving and shouting as loud as possible.
When camping, never store your food in your tent. Keep it at least ten feet above the ground with a rope, or store it in your car. Also, do not cook food or keep your cooking area near your tent if possible. If you know a bear encounter is a possibility for where you are going, consider carrying bear spray.
Contact wildlife officials if you are having nuisance bear problems.
Remember, black bears all have their own personalities, and what might work with one, might not work with another. You do not have to fear black bears, but you should always respect them!
All of the above suggestions are just that—suggestions. You may have other valuable ideas for keeping black bears away from your property. If so, please share them below, along with any questions you may have. We’ll do our best to answer them.
Shawn is a lifelong New Englander. He lives in Canton, Conn., with his wife Tami, mother, sister, and her three children. He and his wife have two grown children and two grandchildren. Shawn is an avid hunter, fisherman, and gardener. He is also a writer, a nuisance wildlife professional, small scale farmer, and scout leader. You can email him at email@example.com.