NC State Extension Publications

Black Bear

The American black bear is the smallest of the three species of bear that occur in the United States, but the largest animal species occurring in North Carolina. This medium-sized bear is usually black with a brown muzzle, lacks a shoulder hump (that is found on the grizzly bear), and may have a white patch or “chest blaze” on the chest. Although black is the predominant color, coat appearance in black bears can also be chocolate or cinnamon brown. Black bears exhibit sexual dimorphism with males being larger than females; adult female black bears generally weigh between 90 and 175 pounds, whereas males weigh between 130 and 660 pounds. The largest documented black bear was a male bear that was harvested from the coastal plain of North Carolina and weighed 880 pounds. Black bears vary considerably in size, depending on the quality of the food available. The species’ life expectancy in the wild is between 10 and 25 years. Black bears have a keen sense of smell and hearing; their vision is less acute, but similar to that of humans and they do see in color. Their night vision is good and they detect movement easily. A bear can smell seven times better than a bloodhound, known for tracking lost people. Its big nose has an area inside (called the nasal mucosa) that is 100 times larger than humans.

Photo of black bear in heavy cover

Black bears are secretive and prefer dense vegetation.

Steve Hillebrand, USFWS  CC BY - 4.0

Habitat Requirements

Black bears are found in 40 of the 50 U.S. states, and the only species of bear found in North Carolina and the eastern United States. They are present in the southern Appalachian Mountains and the coastal bays and swamps of North Carolina. Black bears are normally found in forested landscapes, but within such areas they are highly adaptable. They live in arid and moist forests, from sea level to over 2,000 meters (6,560 feet). The highest quality habitat for black bears contains a variety of forest stand ages, including mature forests dominated by hard mast-producing hardwoods and young forest with abundant soft mast and dense cover. Bears typically require extensive, rugged country with dense understory, swamps, bays, or rock outcrops, and room to travel widely. Bears occasionally will cause damage in livestock operations, apple orchards, cornfields, or by feeding on the inner bark of some desired tree species.

Photo of black bear in a tall tree

Black bear high in a tree.

Nicholas Gould. Wildlife biologist  CC BY-NC - 4.0

Photo of black bears in a suburnban backyard setting.

Family group of three male yearlings and their mother black bear.

Nicholas Gould. Wildlife biologist  CC BY-NC - 4.0

Food

Although technically considered carnivores, black bears are omnivorous, meaning they will eat what is available. The bulk of their diet is hard and soft mast, insects and insect larvae, animals (including fish, retiles, and small mammals), honey, and succulent plants. Black bears can also be efficient predators of deer fawns and elk calves. The amount and types of food eaten by bears varies according to seasonal activities and food availability. Black bears will also readily take advantage of food sources found in urban environments.


Common black bear foods:

Pre-denning (August - November)

Acorns

Blackgum fruits

Holly fruits

Black cherry fruits

Dogwood fruits

Beech nuts

Persimmon fruits

Insects

Mice and voles

Pokeberry fruits

Denning* (Late October - March)
* some bears may be active throughout the winter denning season

Acorns

Gallberry fruits

Corn and other residual grain

Greenbrier

Post-denning (March - May)

Arrow arum

Greenbrier

Grasses

Pokeberry

Squaw root

Tree cambium

Insects

Mice and voles

Breeding (June - July)

Blackberry fruits

Huckleberry fruits

Blueberry fruits

Serviceberry fruits

Viburnum fruits

Insects

Mice and voles

Deer fawns


Photo of black bear climbing a tall tree

Black bears are excellent tree climbers.

Eileen Hornbacker, USFWS  CC BY - 4.0

Cover

Near areas of human activity, black bears often bed down in dense understory vegetation (e.g., mountain laurel, rhododendron, etc.) in daytime and do much of their moving at sunrise and sunset or during the nighttime. Bears sometimes use trees for resting places. Bears go into winter dormancy anywhere from early October through early April in the southern Appalachians. Bears den in large tree cavities or underneath downed or hollow logs, rocky outcroppings, and dense thicket/understory.

Escape Cover

  • Rugged terrain such as steep, rocky, mountainous slopes
  • Mountainsides laced with laurel, rhododendron, grapes, and greenbrier thickets
  • Extensive areas with minimal human disturbance
  • Carolina bays and pocosins in eastern North Carolina

The most important element of escape cover is protection from people, dogs, and vehicles.

Water

Bears require regular access to water sources. Two or more sources of permanent open water per square mile of range should be available.

Home Range

Typical black bear densities range from one bear per square mile to one bear per seven square miles. The home range of bears in the Southeast ranges from 6 to 19 square miles for females to 18 to 160 square miles for males. Home ranges must include den sites, food, water and cover for adults and young. Home ranges and bear densities may vary considerably depending on available food sources. Mast shortages may result in considerable wanderings and/or expansion of home range size, so other important fall and winter foods should be maintained at high levels to deter movement into areas where bears are more vulnerable or may become involved in negative human-bear interactions.

Photo of a black bear in an urban setting.

Urban black bear

Nicholas Gould. Wildlife biologist  CC BY-NC - 4.0

Photo of black bear cubs being held by a researcher

Researchers holding black bear cubs

Nicholas Gould. Wildlife biologist  CC BY-NC - 4.0

Living with Bears

BearWise Basics:

1. Never feed or approach bears.

2. Secure food, garbage, and recycling.

3. Remove bird feeders when bears are active.

4. Never leave pet food outdoors.

5. Clean and store grills.

6. Alert neighbors to bear activity.

For additional information, please visit https://bearwise.org/

Photo of researchers measuring black bear

Researchers taking measurements on a black bear cub.

Nicholas Gould. Wildlife biologist  CC BY-NC - 4.0

Black Bear Management

Tips for Improving Black Bear Habitat

General

  • Provide large expanses of mixed aged forest, with predominantly mast-producing hardwood as the dominant tree species
  • Protect streamside zones, which provide travel corridors through urban and agricultural landscapes

Rotation

  • Manage for long rotations in hardwood types (60 years or more)
  • Limit harvesting to 25 acre stands or less
  • Retain mature forest along rivers and swamps

Regeneration

  • Avoid extensive clearcutting and instead use shelterwood regeneration harvests that retain mast-producing overstory trees that also may provide den sites
  • Regenerate at least 10% of total management area in a 10-year period

Intermediate Treatments

  • Thin occasionally to encourage crown growth, yet avoid frequent disturbances
  • Burn frequently (3 to 7 years) to encourage understory growth and soft mast production

Direct Improvements

  • Retain trees with large cavities and large diameter standing dead trees
  • Select and retain large diameter trees with potential to develop large cavities
  • Limit access and disturbance to management areas

Species that Benefit from Black Bear Management

Numerous game and nongame species benefit from black bear management. Rather than focusing on a single species, habitat management plans should emphasize the communities which include black bears. The following species are just a few that benefit from black bear management:

  • Gray squirrel
  • Raccoon
  • White-tailed deer
  • Wood duck
  • Great horned owl
  • American redstart
  • Pileated woodpecker
  • Ruffed grouse

Citations Used/Additional Resources

BearWise. All about black bears. https://bearwise.org/all-about-black-bears. Accessed 07-05-2019.

International Association for Bear Research & Management. Bears of the World. https://www.bearbiology.org/bears-of-the-world. Accessed 07-05-2019.

Authors

Wildlife biologist
Extension Professor
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Professor (Wildlife)
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Wildlife biologist

Publication date: July 1, 2019
Revised: July 11, 2019

North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.

North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.