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In The Country

Black Bears - a sense of wilderness

Tim Iverson

(9/2016) The American Black Bear, the largest animal found in Maryland, exemplifies a sense of wilderness not often seen or felt by many of us. Often a sense of danger and alarm arises if we stumble upon one or discover they live in the area. The reality is that humanity poses far greater danger to them, but here in Maryland they tell a success story of conservation policy and effective natural resource management.

Black bears are found commonly along the East and West coasts, the Appalachians and Rocky Mountain Ranges, Alaska and Canada, and in small pockets in the Southern US. They have the largest geographic range of any bear in North America. Often reclusive, they prefer to avoid contact or confrontation with people. This avoidance helps make them the least dangerous bear in US. Reliable black bear attack statistics are difficult to come. Best estimates put fatalities at close to three per year. You have significantly higher odds of dying from a lightning strike (51 fatalities per year), automobile accidents (30,000+ per year), or dog attacks (average of 20 per year). This avoidant behavior is likely an evolutionary defense mechanism. Black Bears were cohorts of massive and highly aggressive prehistoric animals like Saber-toothed Tigers, Dire Wolves, and Short-Faced Bears. In order to avoid unwinnable confrontations black bears preferred to stay in rocky mountainous terrain covered in thick vegetative cover. By developing their rather timid demeanor they were able to survive for millennia and this behavior still serves them well.

Black bears have hearing and sight comparable to humans, but have a highly developed sense of smell. Their noses are seven times stronger than that of a dog, and can smell food from over a mile away. In the wild they live about 20 years, but in captivity have lived as long as 44 years old. Most of their diet consists of fruits, roots, and plants – berries are a particular favorite. Occasionally, black bears will kill young deer, and regularly scavenge for ants or other insect larva, and fish. They’re not above eating trash and carrion, especially after emerging from hibernation.

Before settling in for a long winter’s nap, sometime during October or November, black bears need to put on a lot of extra weight. During hibernation they can lose between 20 – 40% of their body weight. Depending on the regional climate hibernation can last from 3 – 8 months. In order to conserve energy body processes and metabolism slows dramatically. The heart rate will drop from 40 – 50 beats per minute to just 8! Hibernation is a great evolutionary adaptation that helps bears survive more difficult colder months where food is not as abundant. In the deep south, like Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, only pregnant females or mothers with yearling cubs will hibernate. During hibernation the bear’s body does some incredible things. While snoozing the bear will retain all excretion and produce a hormone called leptin which suppresses appetite. Pregnant females will also give birth during hibernation.

Mating season for the black bear can run from May to August. During this time black bears (both males and females) will have several different mates. A female will leave scent trails by marking trees, small plants, and more in order to attract a mate. Males will follow these scent trails to find the female bear. Occasionally more than a single male will follow a trail, which leads to a fierce confrontation. After a male does eventually locate the female he will spend several days edging closer and closer to her while she becomes accustomed to his presence. Eventually the two will get close enough and they will begin to nuzzle one another and communicate. It’s after this ritual when their relationship is consummated. The male and female will generally spend two to three days in throes of love mating several times. Once their amorous behavior has ceased they will go their separate ways in attempts to find another new suitor. While a female bear may have fertilized eggs they will not develop or attach to the womb until she settles down for hibernation. This evolutionary adaptation of delayed implantation is unique in the animal world, limited to just about 100 species, and highly useful. It ensures the body of the mother will be viable and healthy enough to support a pregnancy and give birth. It’s in late January and February that one to three cubs will be born and will nurse from their mother until they emerge in spring. These cubs will stay with their mother for approximately 12 – 18 months. After this period they will then set out on their own in search of new territory.

In Maryland black bears were nearly extirpated, meaning they were almost driven to extinction here. When the early settlers arrived bears were commonly found throughout the state. Bears were feared to be dangerous, ate crops, and may have been prone to livestock predation. As a result they were hunted widely. Settlers also cleared large amounts of land for commercial and agricultural use reducing the amount of suitable habitat available to them. In 1972 black bears were placed on the Maryland state Endangered Species List. In 1991 there was an estimated 79 bears left in Maryland. Over the course of the subsequent decade’s habitat quality and amount increased and regulations protected bears. In 2000 MD Department of Natural Resources conducted a census and estimated there to be 227 bears in the state. By 2005 another assessment was done and the population was estimated at 326 bears within the state. The most recent population survey, conducted in 2011, estimated there to be 701 bears in Maryland. Currently MD DNR estimates there to be over 1000 bears within the state.

In order to help control the population Maryland instituted a managed hunting program to help curb explosive growth. The program was introduced in 2005 and has been very popular and successful in a wildlife management aspect. The annual black bear hunt has very strict guidelines and limits, operates for only a few days, and only a limited number of permits are issued. Annually success rates vary between 5% - 12%, usually averaging about 66 bears harvested annually.

Black bears are generally not considered to be dangerous to people, often fleeing an area before an encounter occurs. When a human and bear encounter does happen the best thing to do is stand tall and make lots of noise. This frightens the bear and they take flight to avoid an altercation. Black bears are usually only a nuisance to residents by getting into trash and raiding bird feeders. Successful cohabitation can and does occur meaning the future is bright for these symbols of wilderness. By following some basic guidelines like securing trash and giving them a respectful distance and wide berth is generally all that is required to ensure a peaceful and prosperous coexistence.

Read other articles by Tim Iverson