The Black Bear  by New Mexico Game and Fish

   Humans have been fascinated by bears from Paleolithic times to the present. All too often, however, our interest in bears has been misinformed and marred by paradoxical and inaccurate beliefs.
 
BBBear.jpg (33951 bytes)  On the other hand, we tend to feel a sense of kinship with bears, due in part with the traits we have in common: Bears stand erect on the soles of their feet, sit on their rumps and have shoulder joints which allow free rotation of limbs. They are omnivorous, and their diet and digestive systems are similar to ours. Bears can use their front paws like hands, and their eyes are nearly aligned in a frontal plane. In addition, bears occupy a distinct, often exalted place in folklore, mythology, legend, and literature. They are portrayed as both forgiving and judgmental, as bestowers of moral instruction and as intermediaries between mortals and woodland gods. Their popularization in the form of cuddly teddy bears, such as Pooh, Bongo, Yogi, and others, has created a potentially dangerous misconception in the minds of children as well as adults. The anthropomorphized image of the bear regularly leads people to risk life and limb in their attempt to befriend this powerful wild animal.
   On the other hand, many of us also have an abiding fear of bears. Sensational depictions of bears in movies, stories, and tall tales misrepresent actual bear behavior. Such stories leave us with the equally erroneous impression of the bear’s ferocity and viciousness.
   Actually, the factual information about these remarkable and admirable animals is more fascinating than all the romantic and sensational misconceptions combined.

HISTORY

   Historically, both black bears and grizzlies lived in New Mexico, but the last confirmed grizzly was killed in the 1930s. Currently our black bear population stands at about 3,000. Why do you suppose black bears have managed to survive while grizzlies have not?
   Grizzlies are decidedly more aggressive than black bears. Since grizzlies evolved primarily on the plains where cover is scarce, they tend to stand and fight rather than flee. They are more predatory and carnivorous than black bears. Grizzlies found easy prey when 19th century settlers brought their cattle
BBear_Cubs.jpg (25287 bytes) and sheep to New Mexico. In order to protect the ranching industry, government bear trappers were granted unlimited hunting and trapping privileges. This, combined with extensive conversion of habitat to grazing land, eventually drove the grizzly bear to extinction in New Mexico.
   By contrast, black bears are more reclusive animals. They evolved in the forests where flight behavior rather than confrontation proved to be a more successful strategy in dealing with humans. As well as being smaller and more agile than grizzly bears, black bears have a keen sense of smell and a herbivorous feeding preference. This allows black bears to forage in dense, hidden areas.

DESCRIPTION

   The name "black bear" can be misleading. New Mexico’s black bears actually come in a variety of color phases ranging from black to brown, to cinnamon, red, and blonde. No matter what the color, the black bear is New Mexico’s state mammal!
   An adult black bear can weigh up to 400 pounds, though the average male weighs about 250 pounds. Female black bears typically weigh between 150 and 180 pounds. Their powerful limbs each have five toes and five short, curved claws that are used for digging and severing. Their front feet are about as long as they are wide, but the hind feet are long and narrow and resemble a human foot. Black bears have strong muscular necks and are very adept climbers. They also have an acute sense of smell.
   Black bears’ potential lifespan extends to more than 30 years, although in New Mexico it is considerably less. Their relatively short life is due to loss of habitat, predation by other bears, hunting by humans, and to bears becoming nuisances and subsequently having to be killed.

BBear_Tree.jpg (22685 bytes)

SHELTER

   We’ve all seen cartoon bears entering caves to begin their long winter sleep, but real black bears do not fit this stereotype. Black bears select a surprisingly small den which has one or more openings. The openings are often so narrow that an adult human would find it difficult to squeeze through them. In New Mexico, dens are frequently located under outcroppings of large rocks or tree roots. It is believed that small dens are chosen for their thermal properties. Young, independent females and males den alone and emerge as early as late March.
   Black bears do not officially hibernate but enter a state of ‘torpor’ which is a modified form of hibernation. Though drowsy and slow to react, a mother bear can still defend herself and her cubs more effectively than can an animal that truly hibernates. The black bear’s metabolic and digestive processes undergo an amazing transformation during its stay in the den. Rather than excreting, the black bear has evolved the capacity to reabsorb its waste products and convert them into useful proteins and other nutrients. Since urination and defecation don’t occur, odor is not produced. This significantly decreases the bear’s chances of being found by mountain lions, bobcats, or coyotes, which often prey upon dens.

FOOD

   Being omnivorous and opportunistic, the black bear has a diet which varies according to seasonal availability of foods. In the spring the diet is mostly one of fresh grasses and forbs, young succulent shoots, roots, insects, and carrion. In summer, young grasses, forbs, insects, berries, and fruits are primary sources of nourishment. Like humans, bears cannot convert cellulose into an absorbable form and so the mature plants and grasses of summer cannot be properly digested. Rocks and stumps may be overturned in search of grubs, and yellow-jacket nests may be invaded. In late August, bears begin to forage on the foods that enable them to gain weight rapidly so they can go through the denning period without eating. They eat a great deal of acorns, pinon nuts, and juniper berries in the fall to store fat for the approaching winter. If necessary, they will feed on small rodents, maggots, and anthills. True to popular belief, bears do raid commercial beehives and extract honey, as well as the bees! An occasional bear will take livestock. Males may kill and eat cubs. Such behavior may not fit our image of Pooh or Smokey, but it does maintain a balance between population and available habitat.

REPRODUCTION

   The black bear is not a threatened or endangered species. However, it is vulnerable to extinction because of its mating habits and reproductive cycle. Breeding doesn’t begin until a bear is four or five years old, and mating occurs only once every two years. For this reason wildlife management policies must take care to prevent over-hunting of black bears. In New Mexico, black bears breed between mid-May and July. Gestation takes seven to eight months. Delayed implantation of the egg enables the female to breed in the summer and give birth in the winter. Though fertilized, the egg remains a cluster of cells and doesn’t implant itself in the uterine wall until mid-November. Embryos may not develop at all if food is in short supply during the fall.
   Females give birth in January or February with an average litter size of two cubs. Newborns are about the size of a mouse and weigh just six to eight ounces. The newborn bears are blind and helpless and purr while they nurse. Within a month, they will weigh between two and two-and-a-half pounds. In their play, cubs crawl about the den in circles, always returning to their mothers rather than straying.
   Mother bears provide excellent den care, and infant mortalities are rare. By the time they venture out of the den in April or May, the cubs will weigh six to seven pounds.
   By winter, they will tip the scales at 40 - 70 pounds! Cubs are weaned at about seven months but remain with their mother until late into their second spring. Climbing is one of the first and most important skills the cubs learn. Black bears can scramble up a tree with remarkable ease! Mothers frequently send them up trees to insure their safety.

SIGN OF BEARS

   You can tell that a bear has been foraging in an area by observing overturned rocks and stumps, and torn-apart rotten trees and logs. It is thought that bears may mark territory by chewing, scratching, and rubbing against trees and sign posts. Look for indentations from teeth or claws or remnants of fur on posts and trees. Bear "trails" can be found in solitary bear habitats, as well as in areas of high bear density.
   The trails are formed because of the black bear’s propensity to step in its own tracks or in the tracks of bears that have proceeded it. The result is depressions in the foliage if the trail is used frequently; tracks may appear in the soil as well. The most frequent indicator of bear activity is "scat," or fecal material. Scat content varies from vegetative matter to acorns, berries, or flesh / hair remains.

   Humans have been fascinated by bears from Paleolithic times to the present. All too often, however, our interest in bears has been misinformed and marred by paradoxical and inaccurate beliefs.
   On the other hand, we tend to feel a sense of kinship with bears, due in part with the traits we have in common: Bears stand erect on the soles of their feet, sit on their rumps and have shoulder joints which allow free rotation of limbs. They are omnivorous, and their diet and digestive systems are similar to ours. Bears can use their front paws like hands, and their eyes are nearly aligned in a frontal plane. In addition, bears occupy a distinct, often exalted place in folklore, mythology, legend, and literature. They are portrayed as both forgiving and judgmental, as bestowers of moral instruction and as intermediaries between mortals and woodland gods. Their popularization in the form of cuddly teddy bears, such as Pooh, Bongo, Yogi, and others, has created a potentially dangerous misconception in the minds of children as well as adults. The anthropomorphized image of the bear regularly leads people to risk life and limb in their attempt to befriend this powerful wild animal.
   On the other hand, many of us also have an abiding fear of bears. Sensational depictions of bears in movies, stories, and tall tales misrepresent actual bear behavior. Such stories leave us with the equally erroneous impression of the bear’s ferocity and viciousness.
   Actually, the factual information about these remarkable and admirable animals is more fascinating than all the romantic and sensational misconceptions combined.

Taken from a special publication.