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The Black Bear
ImageThe main reason black bears are the most illusive game for still hunters is that they have become creatures of the night.

They were not always nocturnal. Before man invaded his range, black bears roamed the country whenever the hunger urge dictated movement, regardless of the time of day.

The white man, in particular, considered black bears as an enemy because they were a threat to kill the live stock they needed to survive in the American wilderness.

Even today in some sheep rearing areas, the death of a lamb from natural causes is considered a good excuse to organize a bear hunt.

If they are detected by the law, they have a carcass to use in their claim of predation.

One former West Virginia conservation officer told me 25 years ago that he stopped trying to prosecute those who killed bears illegally because a conviction in local court for killing bears out of season was impossible to get in areas where the court sympathized with the sheep farmers.

Even if the dead sheep that spurred a successful hunt had no evidence of mutilation by a bear, the feeling of the court was that a bear that would some day kill sheep had been eliminated.

Actually, the primary diet of the black bears is vegetation. In the spring, they begin on the young green plants, later switching to berries, bulbs and tubers. Being opportunistic feeders they will also eat any carrion they happen to find in their travels.

Most of the incidents of live stock depredation can be attributed to poor mast crops. When nature fails to provide, they naturally seek anything available to satisfy their ravenous appetite.

In the Pacific Northwest black bears destroy many young trees as they girdle them to eat the cambium and sap. This feeding activity provokes the wrath of the lumber company owners.

In addition to the depredation that costs some humans money, bears are generally misunderstood and feared by many humans. They are large animals (adult males will average 200 pounds and can reach weights in excess of 500 pounds) and will on rare occasion become aggressive towards humans. There are documented cases of black bears making unprovoked attacks on humans, but the normal behavior of black bears is to quickly leave an area where he catches a glimpse or smell of man.

These rare attacks have given black bears an unjustified reputation as being dangerous game in the minds of some.

Actually, there are probably many more cases of pet dogs suddenly turning aggressive than black bears attacking people.

The fear of bears and the depredation has been the two reasons man has considered it prudent to shoot any black bear that happens to enter his territory.

It was after many encounters with man that the black bear became condition to do most of its roaming and feeding under the cover of darkness.

But black bears are not completely nocturnal. Their ravenous appetite will usually bring them out hiding to start feeding just before dark. It is not unusual to find them feeding anytime during the day.

From the time bears leave their dens in the spring until they return in the fall or winter, they spend almost all of their awake time either eating or looking for something to eat. They consume tremendous amounts of food as they daily add a pound or two to their body weight. If undisturbed they will usually return to the same food source; whether it is apple trees, berry patch or carrion; until the food supply is exhausted.

There normal procedure when locating an extensive supply of food is to approach the area around dusk and eat until dawn. Then they will locate some thick cover to hide and sleep during the daylight hours. It may be a couple hundred yards from the food supply or it could be a mile or more away. The bedding area could be in a bog or some other heavy cover not easily accessible by man.

Black bears also feed on insects and small mammals. A bear on this kind of feed is a difficult prey for the still hunter because he is very mobile. Once the bear tears up a decaying stump and feeds on the insects, he will move to another. The same situation exists when he finds a rodent or two under a log. There is no reason for the bear to return to the same spot. However, freshly disturbed stumps or logs will let the still hunter know that a bear is feeding in the area.

The range of individual bears varies widely. It is usually one to 16 square miles, but some bears may roam over a much larger territory.

While population density will vary from area to area, the black bear can be found in every province in Canada; Alaska; the Rocky Mountains down into northern Mexico; the Great Lakes area; the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia; the Ozark Mountains; the swamp areas of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana and the Pacific Northwest down to the northern half of California.

While black is the predominant color of the species we call black bear, it has many color variations that seem to be geographical. Not all biologists agree, but there may be as many as 18 sub species in North America. They vary from the pure white to pure black with several shades of brown and blue mixed in. The pure white coloration is found in British Columbia, the blue, or glazier color ation, in the Pacific Northwest and most of the shades of brown in the west. Most of the eastern bears are black, but there are some slight variations. Some are totally black, some will have a brown muzzle and others will be marked with a white diamond on their throat. Black bears with brown coloration have been killed as far east as Pennsylvania.

Uploaded: 2/21/2004