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  The Mammals of Texas - Online Edition

Black Bear
Order Carnivora : Family Ursidae : Ursus americanus Pallas

Black Bear (Ursus americanus).  Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.Description. A medium-sized bear, black or brown in color; snout brownish in the black color phase; front claws slightly longer than the hind claws, curved, adapted for climbing; profile of face nearly straight, not "dished-in" as in the grizzly; fur long and rather coarse. Dental formula: I 3/3, C 1/1, Pm 4/4, M 2/3 X 2 = 42. External measurements average: total length, 1,500 mm; tail, 125 mm; hind foot, 175 mm; height at shoulder about 625 mm. Weight, 100-150 kg; occasionally as much as 225 kg.

Distribution in Texas. Formerly widespread throughout the state; now restricted to remnant populations in mountainous areas of the Trans-Pecos region.

Habits. Black bears have been restricted by the inroads of "civilization" to the more remote, less accessible mountainous areas or to the nearly impenetrable thickets along watercourses. Only in places that have a low human population or an enlightened public have black bears been able to cope successfully with humans.

Largely creatures of woodland and forested areas, black bears are more at home on the ground than they are in the trees. They are expert climbers, however, and, especially when young, often seek refuge in trees. Ordinarily they are shy and retiring and seldom are seen. They appear to use definite travelways or runs, a habit that is frequently taken advantage of by hunters.

In spite of their large size and reputed clumsiness, bears are fleet-footed. One of us (Davis) once surprised a bear feeding in a berry patch. After the initial shock of meeting each other at close range, the bear regained its presence of mind first and bolted along a trail through the underbrush. It ran with amazing speed, resembling a big hog as it noisily left the thicket.

In the colder parts of their range, black bears "hole up" in a windfall, at the base of a tree, under a shelving rock, or in some other suitable site, and are inactive for a part of the winter. They do not exhibit the characteristics of true hibernation; their temperature does not drop markedly nor are the heartbeat and respiratory rate materially reduced. Often the bears are nearly fully exposed to the winter weather during their prolonged sleep. They may awaken and become active during a warm spell in midwinter and return to the nest to sleep again when the temperature drops.

Their food is extremely varied as reflected by the crushing type of molar teeth. They are known to feed upon nest contents of wild bees, carpenter ants and other insects, manzanita berries, coffee berries, wild cherry, poison oak, apples, pine nuts, acorns, clover, grass, roots, fish, carrion, and garbage about camps. Occasional animals become killers of livestock and young deer.

The breeding season is in June or July. The one to four young (usually two) are born in January or February, while the mother is "hibernating," after a gestation period of 210-217 days. At birth the young are blind, covered with a sparse growth of fine hair, and almost helpless. They weigh less than 500 g and are about 15 cm long. They grow rather slowly at first; their eyes open in about 6 weeks. By the time the mother is ready to leave her winter den they are strong enough to follow. The cubs remain with her until the fall of their second year when they venture forth on their own. By that time, the female is preparing for her next family. Normally, old females mate every other year, and young females do not mate until 2 years or more of age.

Bears have few enemies other than man. They make interesting pets when small, but they become dangerous as they grow older. Their chief economic value is as a game animal. Their pelts have little value on the fur market, but they are prized as trophies.

Remarks. There have been many recent sightings of black bear in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. Studies by Eric Hellgren of Texas A&M – Kingsville University suggest that black bears dispersing from the mountains of Mexico are recolonizing their historical habitat in the Trans-Pecos. A resident, breeding population of perhaps 20 individuals is thought to occur in the Chisos Mountains.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.