American Black Bear

A black bear walks along a branch of a tree.
Black bears are native to Florida.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (cropped)

Black bears are the largest land mammals in Florida and are the only species of bear in the southeastern United States. Adults can weigh anywhere from 200 to 500 pounds and can be five to six feet long. Just like humans, these mammals walk flat-footed with all five toes on the ground, giving them a distinctive paw print. Generally covered in black fur, they often have a brown or tan snout and almost always have a white patch of fur on their chest, called a blaze.

Ursus americanus, or the American black bear, has historically roamed most of North America. As the human population expanded, the bear population plummeted. Many bears were hunted and hunts continue today, but the biggest cause for their decline is habitat loss. Today, they occupy about half of their historic range in the United States and can be found in both northwest Florida and southern Mississippi, and have been observed in the Naval Live Oaks area of Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Contrary to popular belief, bears are not true hibernators like some other smaller mammals. True hibernators lower their breathing, heart rate, and body temperature significantly. Black bears, on the other hand, enter what is known as “winter lethargy.” Their sleep is not nearly as deep as mammals in true hibernation. A noise outside the den can easily wake up these sleeping bears. While in this period of winter lethargy, the heart rate slows down considerably, but the body temperature remains relatively constant.

In Florida, with its incredibly mild winters, some male black bears do not den at all. Females are far more likely to enter this period of lethargy and find a cozy den for the winter. It is during this denning period that females will carry young and give birth. Baby black bears are no larger than a small squirrel and require the constant attention of their mother for the first few months of life. Mother bears will choose a sheltered den to care for their young during this time. When spring comes, the female and her cubs will emerge spend the next few months foraging before winter comes again.

Faster than even the fastest man on Earth, black bears do not usually use their speed to capture prey. Instead, they tend to be scavengers. Road kill, berries, insects, and even human trash are all favorite foods of this generalist feeding behavior. Unfortunately, some bears have developed such a taste for human food that they have begun to roam into neighborhoods knocking over trash cans in search of their next snack. This lack of fear is incredibly dangerous, not only for the people living in these neighborhoods, but for the bears, as well.

Do your part to help keep wildlife wild by properly storing any food you bring camping, or if you live in an area with plenty of bear habitat keep your garbage secured. Bears have an amazing sense of smell and can sniff out your old pizza from miles away! If you ever encounter a bear in the wild (or in your neighborhood), do not panic. Wild bears are generally timid. Assess the situation, and if the bear does not seem interested in you, back away keeping your eyes on the bear. If you feel threatened, make yourself as large and as noisy as possible. The bear will likely retreat. Do not play dead!

 

Last updated: October 25, 2018

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