In the Wild: North American Bears

A look at the three most common North American bears in the wild.

| September/October 2014

  • An American black bear observes its surroundings in a Minnesota forest.
    Photo by
  • An American black bear with cinnamon-colored fur forages in the wilderness.
    Photo by
  • A female grizzly bear walks along the shore of a lake in Katmai National Park with her cubs close behind.
    Photo by Fotolia/Tony Campbell
  • A Kodiak brown bear catches fish in the coastal waters.
    Photo by Canning
  • A close up photo of a beautiful polar bear.
    Photo by Freder

Bears have fascinated and frightened people for millennia. They are cuddly, cute, ferocious and fearsome all at the same time. To early settlers, bears were one of the few animals in the wild that were at least equal if not superior to them in hunting prowess and strength.

Bears inhabit all of the northern hemisphere — North America, Europe and Asia — and South America. They are absent from Africa and Australia — the koala bear is not really a bear, but a marsupial, related to kangaroos. North America is home to three species of bears: the American black bear, the brown bear and the polar bear. Each species has its own interesting biology and ecology as well as folklore.

American black bear

The smallest and most widespread species of bear in North America is the American black bear (Ursus americanus). Black bears are found mostly in forested areas from Alaska to central Mexico. In several areas of their range, black bears live in close proximity to humans, which often leads to conflicts. Although attacks on humans may result from these encounters, black bears are more likely to flee from humans than they are to attack.

Black bears vary in size depending on geography and the sex of the bear. Bears in the northern part of their range tend to be larger than their southern cousins. Male bears, which weigh anywhere from 120 to more than 600 pounds, are also larger than females, which typically range from 90 to 300-plus pounds. Both males and females vary in length from about 4 to 6 feet.

While most black bears actually are black, there is some variation in their fur color throughout their range. In the western United States and Canada, they are often brown, cinnamon or buff colored. On the coast of Alaska and British Columbia, black bears often have distinctive blue-gray fur and are called glacier bears, while others have white fur.

Bears of all kinds have a reputation of being ferocious predators, but the American black bear is actually an omnivore, meaning it eats both plants and animals. Actually, black bears feed mostly on plant material, such as berries, nuts and seeds. They also feed heavily on insects and other small animals like crayfish and snails. Their curved claws are ideal for pulling the bark off of logs and digging under leaves for insect larvae and worms. One of the black bear’s main sources of protein is ant eggs.

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