Black Bears: the unsung bear of Montana

black bear


by Jan L Wassink

Mention the word “bear” in a dinner conversation and chances are overwhelming that you will get a wide variety of responses from those present. Some will immediately think of a fierce powerful creature with a bad temper that attacks humans with little or no provocation. Others may think of the bears they observed along the roadside in one of the national parks, peacefully foraging or digging for beetles, seemingly oblivious to the line of cars filled with people watching their every move. Still others may conjure up an almost-human character like Yogi the bear or the bears they observed in the zoo - romping, wrestling, whining and even taking a few shuffling steps while standing erect.
While the first description of a fierce creature might more aptly describe either of the black bear’s larger North American relatives, the polar bear or the grizzly bear, the black bear is not a fierce, ill-tempered animal. More naturally prone to flee and disappear rather than risk a confrontation with a human, most black bear/human encounters are limited to short glimpse of the south end of a north-bound black bear as it disappears into the timber at a dead run.
Although relatively timid in nature, black bears are capable of inflicting serious injuries when surprised, cornered, hungry or protecting their cubs. Still, less than 30 deaths as a result of black bears have been recorded in North America. The truth is that you are 180 times more likely to die from a bee sting than from an attack by a black bear. You are 160,000 times more likely to be killed in a traffic accident. Still, black bears are powerful predators and should be viewed from a distance and treated with respect when encountered in close quarters.
Regardless of their name, black bears come in several color phases other than basic black, including brown, cinnamon, blond, gray and even white. In the eastern United States, most black bears are in fact black but in Montana and much of the rest of the western mountains, the brown to blond color phases are more common. While an occasional albino or partial albino bear may be seen anywhere in the United States, there is a populations of white black bears on one of the islands off the coast of British Columbia.
Black bears may be found throughout Montana but are much more common in areas of coniferous forest. While densities of black bears in the best habitats may be as high as two bears per square mile, in less ideal habitat, bear populations are considerably lower.
Like most mammals, bears establish home ranges. Resident bears appear to have a psychological advantage when defending their home turf. Consequently, most intruders, when confronted by the smell and “signposts” of a resident bear, move on rather than incur the wrath of the landlord. In addition, once entrenched in a home range, bears have an uncanny sense of location. When trapped and moved to a new location, they almost invariably return “home.” Bears have been moved as many as 30 miles from their home range, only to return within days.
Black bears will eat almost anything, plant or animal, and so are classified as being omnivorous. When first emerging from their dens in spring, they seek out carrion of winterkilled ungulates as well as they first succulent green grasses on the south facing slopes. As spring turns into summer, they eat a wide variety of grasses, sedges, forbs and, occasionally, bark. The inner bark or cambium layer is quite palatable and very nutritious.
Although black bears like meat, they lack the speed to catch full-grown ungulates consistently. They will, however, prey on deer or elk weakened by disease or old age and also any young animals they happen on. They also dig successfully for ground squirrels and other small rodents.
As fall approaches, the bears turn to buffalo berries, snowberries, strawberries, cow parsnips, huckleberries and serviceberries, to mention a few. In years when natural foods are scarce, bears may become nuisances around humans by taking advantage of any food source that is available – pet food left outside, grain or pellets for livestock, bee hives, garbage and bird feeders. Once successful in finding a source of food, whether natural or human related, the bear’s long-term memory is engaged and that food source is not likely to be forgotten. Aversion training has met with some success in Montana to deter bears from returning to human related sources of food. The wandering in search of non-natural sources of food becomes more acute just prior to denning in the fall and in drought years.
Contrary to popular belier, bears do not hibernate – they merely enter a deep sleep. Unlike true hibernators such as marmots (which cannot easily be aroused because of reduced metabolic processes), the breathing, heartbeat and body temperature of “hibernating” bears are not much different from those of bears snoozing on a hot summer afternoon. Although lethargic, they can be aroused.
Here in Montana, bears usually enter their dens sometime in October. After several months in her den, about January or February, the female gives birth to two cubs (occasionally three cubs are born and very rarely four). Relative to the size of the sow, newborn black bear cubs are among the smallest of young in the world.
When born, cubs are about nine inches long, weigh six to eight ounces, are blind, hairless and toothless. Three to four weeks later, they open their eyes, but do little more than continue suckling. The sow seems oblivious to the squirming bodies and remains in a state of deep sleep for several more months before emerging sometime in May, with her cubs in tow.
By then, the cubs weigh about four pounds, and can manage a rather unsteady walk. They are excellent climbers and take to the trees at the first nudge from their mother. Stragglers may be cuffed by the sow and, as a result, the mistake is seldom repeated.
Cubs remain with their mothers through the first summer and until the start of the next, at which time they are about 16 months old. Weighing about 50 pounds and recently weaned, they are capable of foraging for themselves. Becoming increasingly intolerant of the cubs, the sow may cuff the cubs repeatedly and nip at their flanks to encourage their independence. By the time they are two and a half years old, they disperse, find mates and become solitary like their elders.
Shortly after leaving her cubs, a sow comes into heat and remains in that condition until she encounters a male. Fierce fighting for her favor may break out between rival males. Rangers and biologists examining tranquilized bears have seen evidence of these fights. Old scars may cover the face and head of an animal. Ears, too, may have been slashed and appear as nothing more than tattered ribbons.
In Montana, black bears are managed to provide recreational opportunities for hunting and non-hunting resource users. Although certainly not as popular with hunters as deer and elk, in terms of days of hunting recreation, the black bear is an important game animal. Unfortunately, bear/human encounters are gradually increasing as increasing human populations expand deeper and deeper into historic black bear habitat. Hopefully, more and more people will learn to live successfully with black bears in the area by keeping food attractants unavailable to bears. This step alone will go a long way toward insuring that we can coexist peacefully with bears far into the future.

Living with black bears

1) Do store garbage where bears cannot get at it. It is even better if you can keep your garbage in plastic garbage sacks and put the garbage out on the morning of collection rather than the night before.
2) Do remember that bird feeders attract bears. Bears will eat birdseed, suet and sugar water from hummingbird feeders. If you have bears in the area, consider not feeding the birds during the summer or early fall months or hanging the feeders 10 feet high and 4 feet out from a tree or building.
3) Do remember that bears will be attracted to livestock feed – especially oats and pelleted feed. Keep these feeds cleaned up and locked in a secure building.
4) Do fence fruit trees to keep bears away. Electric fencing should generate 3000 volts to be effective.
5) Do protect your beehives from bears. Beehives can be placed at least 50 yards from the nearest forest or other source of cover, elevated on a 15 to 20 foot high platform and/or surrounded by an electric fence.
6) Do protect your compost pile from bears, especially if you occasionally include material other than strictly weeds and grass clippings.
7) Do remember that barbeque grills, smokers, ice chests and so on can also be a source of odors that will attract bears. Keep them clean and locked up.

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