The black bear (Ursus americanus) is the most common and widely distributed bear species in North America. However, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the few areas south of Canada where black bears coexist with the grizzly bears. From 1910 to the 1960s, park managers allowed visitors to feed black bears along park roads, although the National Park Service officially frowned on this activity. During this time, along with Old Faithful, black bears became the symbol of Yellowstone for many people, and are still what some people think of when Yellowstone bears are mentioned. Since 1960, park staff have sought to deter bears from becoming conditioned to human foods.
Little is known about the black bear population in Yellowstone or whether it has been affected by the increase in grizzly bear numbers and distribution since the 1970s. Black bears are commonly observed in the park, especially on the northern range and in the Bechler area of the park. Black bears have few natural predators, although both cubs and adults are occasionally killed by their own kind or by the other large carnivores with which they compete for food—wolves, cougars, and grizzly bears. Vehicle collisions (average = 1 per year) and removals of nuisance bears (average = 1 every 5 years) are not common either. Most black bear mortality in the park is likely attributed to old age or other natural causes. Outside the park, some black bears are killed during state regulated hunting seasons. As their access to human foods has been reduced, human injuries from black bears in the park have decreased from an average of 45 per year during the 1930s–1960s to approximately one injury every five years since 1980. Black bears are occasionally radio-collared for management and scientific reasons, with the latter focusing on research on habitat selection and multi-carnivore interactions.
In Yellowstone, about 50% of black bears are black in color; others are brown, blond, and cinnamon. Black bears eat almost anything, including grass, fruits, tree cambium, eggs, insects, fish, elk calves, and carrion. Their short, curved claws enable them to climb trees but do not allow them to dig for roots or ants as well as a grizzly bear can.
The life cycle of black bears is similar to grizzly bears. Like grizzly bears, black bears spend most of their time during fall and early winter feeding during hyperphagia. In November, they locate or excavate a den on north-facing slopes between 5,800–8,600 feet (1,768–2,621 m), where they hibernate until late March.
Males and females without cubs are solitary, except during the mating season, May to early July. They may mate with a number of individuals, but occasionally a pair stays together for the entire period. Both genders usually begin breeding at age four. Like grizzly bears, black bears also experience delayed implantation. Total gestation time is 200 to 220 days, but only during the last half of this period does fetal development occur.
Birth occurs in mid-January to early February; the female becomes semiconscious during delivery. Usually two cubs are born. At birth, the cubs are blind, toothless, and almost hairless. After delivery the mother continues to sleep for another two months while the cubs nurse and sleep.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the few areas south of Canada where black bears coexist with grizzly bears. Although grizzly bears in Yellowstone have been studied continuously for more than 50 years, very little research has been conducted on the park’s black bears since the 1960s. The last black bear study in YNP was completed during a period when black bear behavior was still influenced by the availability of human foods from garbage dumps, non-bear-proof garbage cans, and recreational hand feeding by park visitors along roadsides.
Thus, there is a scarcity of current information available for park managers to use in making decisions on black bear management. In a current study, a combination of GPS-tracking camera collars and non-invasive DNA samples from hair snares will help biologists learn more about the black bears’ population size and density, predatory rates on elk, home range sizes, movements, food habits, and habitat use.
Results from the data are still being analyzed, but some preliminary data have yielded insights. More black bear hair samples are being collected than was expected. GPS readings from tracking collars are showing male black bears to range farther than previously thought, and video from the collars has shown a new variety of food choices and behaviors.
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Last updated: October 21, 2020