Black Bear


From Yellowstone Wildlife: A Watchers Guide 
by Todd Wilkinson.
America's Bruin

The black bear's scientific and Latin name, Ursus americanus, means "American bear." But many of Yellowstone's visitors look upon the black bruin as "the little brother of the grizzly." Although both species of bears are endemic to Yellowstone, they are different in appearance, size, and behavior. Black bears are the most prolific member of the bear family in North America, and are found from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic seaboard. 

Yellowstone is known worldwide as a sanctuary for these popular quadrupeds. According to loose estimates, 650 black bears inhabit the park, outnumbering grizzlies by a three-to-one margin. Surprisingly little is known about black bears, however, because most field studies to date have focused on the threatened grizzlies. 

Compared to grizzlies, black bears are docile, though males (boars) and females (sows) have been known to attack humans who accidentally stumble upon a cache of food or wander too close to bear cubs. The biggest mistake made by visitors lies in believing that the bears are tame. Acident reports prove otherwise. Feeding bears is not only dangerous, it encourages animals to forsake natural food for human handouts, a habit that has resulted in human injury and he resultant forced destruction of many bruins. Feeding them just once trains them to seek human foods by hanging around roads, where they may get killed by cars or become aggressive, possibly injuring someone. From 1931 to 1969, an everage of 46 people were injured annually by bears in the park, and an average of 24 bears were killed each year. 

The primary misconception about black bears is that all of them are black. depending upon genetic makeup, the shades of their coats can be reddish-tan, blond, chocolate brown, or jet black. Brown-colored black bears are often mistaken for small grizzlies. The size of black bears can generally help establish the difference. Adult boars weigh between 200 and 600 pounds, while sows weigh between 150 and 400 pounds. 

Of course, there are other differences. A black bear's rump is higher than its shoulder hump and it will have a "Roman nose," instead of the grizzly's dish-shaped face. Scat from a black bear is tube-shaped, and smaller than grizzly scat. 

Tracks reflect the black bear's classification as a plantigrade, or flat-footed walker. The front and rear paw prints look almost human, with five toes, and the paws usually leave a near-to-full-foot print impression, shallower in front but deeper in back. 

Having adapted to forests over thousands of years, black bears are adept at climbing trees. These escape routes are often used by imperiled cubs. Grizzlies, encumbered by long claws, are not as skilled at ascending Yellowstone's tall but skinny conifers. 

Less reliant on brute strength than grizzlies, black bears prey less often upon large game animals, instead employing superb scavenging techniques. During the seven or eight months prior to winter denning, they consume a variety of succulent grasses, roots, berries, and other plants, while eating small rodents, animal carcasses, and elk calves when available. 

[image2]The black bear's roving nature takes it into open meadows, where the food slection is best. By happy coincidence, this terrain accommodates wildlife watchers who look for bears from the road. The forest fires of 1988 affected a large section of terrain along park roads, and it's conceivable that bear sightings may increase in the burned drainages that have experienced vegetation and rodent invasions. Scientists remain uncertain about habitat overlap between black bears and grizzlies, and are unsure whether the two species compete for territory in the park. 

Because their threatened status affords grizzlies federal protection, the more abundant black bears have become increasingly vulnerable to illegal killing, and the poachers acknowledge no boundaries. The bears are slaughtered for gallbladders, paws, and claws, and local populations across the country have been severely diminished by poachers. Fortunately, because of the isolation of Yellowstone's backcountry and diligent ranger patrols, black bears here are less of a target. 

Where to Find Black Bears

Visit the Blacktail Plateau region between Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower Roosevelt Junction, and scan meadows between Tower and Antelope Creek south of Tower Falls. 

The region between Undine Falls and Floating Island Lake on the Mammoth to Roosevelt Junction should be considered for possible bear watching excursions by auto, as should the river floodplain of the Gardiner River south of Roosevelt for several miles past Tower Falls. 

Perhaps the best strategy for finding a bear is to stop at park visitor centers and obtain the latest information from rangers. If you spot a bear on the road, report it to the rangers, because the information may help rangers protect the animal from harassment or feeding. Continue to the next page, Coyote.

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