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Fragile Legacy

Endangered, Threatened & Rare Animals of South Dakota

Black Bear (Ursus americanus)

JPG--species photo species distribution map
Status: State Threatened

Description: This large, stout carnivore is usually completely black except for a brown snout and sometimes a white "V" on its throat or chest. Males measure 51-75 inches in length (130-190 cm) and weigh 265-617 pounds (120-280 kg). Females are 43-67 inches (110-170 cm) long and weigh 100-400 pounds (45-182 kg). The black bear has several color phases, including black, brown, cinnamon, blond and white. It is like humans in being plantigrade, meaning it walks on the entire soles of its feet. The black bear is almost tailless.

Habitat and Habits: Black bears prefer remote areas of mixed deciduous coniferous forests with a thick understory. Den sites include areas underneath fallen trees, hollow logs or underground caves. This species is solitary except for females with cubs, or in situations where food is abundant.

An opportunistic omnivore, it feeds on berries, acorns and some leafy vegetation. This bear is capable of killing deer and livestock, but usually eats carrion as a meat source. Black bears possess excellent senses of hearing and smell, and can detect carrion from more than 1 mile away. Garbage, rather than livestock, is the most significant food item provided by humans. The home range of a male may be up to 78 square miles (30.1 km2), with females traveling about half that area. The black bear is active throughout the day.

Black bears have an extremely low reproductive rate that is closely tied to the food supply. Animals become sexually mature at 4-5 years, mate during mid-summer, but reproduce only every other year. A female has 2-3 cubs in late January or February while in her winter den. Cubs may stay with the female until nearly 1.5 years old, when the mother begins her reproductive cycle again.

Both males and females hibernate in the winter, generally under brush piles, tree downfalls or rock ledges. Denning allows bears to survive harsh weather conditions and lack of winter food. Although body temperature drops and heart rate slows, bears will awaken from hibernation if disturbed. A black bear may line its den with vegetation and close the entrance, making the den warmer and more camouflaged.

Distribution: The black bear is distributed throughout North America north of central Mexico, except for southwestern United States. Substantial populations are found only in the northwestern states, the Rockies, northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine and in most of Alaska. In South Dakota, this species has been observed in the Black Hills region of Custer County, although its distribution may be more widespread.

Conservation Measures: Historically, bears were despised and killed as harmful predators. Black bears are now recognized as valuable game animats and as components of our remaining wilderness. Unfortunately, people often fail to realize how strong, unpredictable and destructive a bear can be. Females with cubs are protective and aggressive. Campgrounds and garbage dumps are regarded by bears as food sources, increasing the likelihood of confrontations between people and bears.

The total range of the black bear may be decreasing as human encroachment increases. Public education will undoubtedly contribute to the possibility for coexistence of bears and humans. Habitat preserves may be needed in areas of dwindling black bear populations. The existence of a breeding black bear population in South Dakota is uncertain at this time.

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