Black Bears

Figure 1. Black bear (Ursus americanus). Photo by Scott E. Hygnstrom


Black bears (Ursus americanus, Figure 1) are the smallest and most widely distributed of the 3 species of bears in North America. They are massive, strongly built animals. 

Legal Status

Black bears are protected by federal and state laws and regulations throughout their range.  

Physical Description

Black bears that live east of the Mississippi River predominantly are black, but in the Rocky Mountains and westward, shades of brown, cinnamon, and blond are common. The head is moderately-sized with a straight profile and tapering nose. The ears are relatively small, rounded, and erect. The tail is short (3 to 6 inches) and inconspicuous. Each foot has 5 curved claws, about 1 inch long, that are non-retractable. Bears walk with a shuffling gait but they can be quite agile and quick.  

It is important to distinguish between black bears and grizzly bears (also called brown bears). Guard hairs of grizzlies have white or silver tips, giving the bears a frosted or “grizzly” appearance. Grizzly bears have a pronounced hump over the shoulder, a shortened, often dished face, relatively small ears, and long claws (Figure 2). Adult black bears weigh 100 to 400 pounds and measure 4 to 6 feet in length. Some adult male black bears weigh over 600 pounds. Grizzly bears typically are much larger than black bears, ranging from 400 to 1,300 pounds. 

Figure 2.  Distinctions between black and grizzly bears. Image by Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage .

Species Range

Black bears historically ranged throughout most of North America, except for the desert southwest and the treeless barrens of northern Canada. They still occupy much of their original range, with the exception of the Great Plains, Midwestern states, and parts of the southeastern coastal states (Figure 3). Distributions of black and grizzly bears overlap in the Rocky Mountains, Western Canada, and Alaska. 

Figure 3. Distribution of the black bear in North America. Image by Stephen M. Vantassel. 

Tracks and Signs

Figure 4. Tracks of a black bear. Image by Dee Ebbeka. 

Tracks of bears are recognized by their shape and size (Figure 4). The tracks are dimorphic, with the front foot rarely showing the heel. Front feet average 4½ inches in length and 4 inches in width. Rear feet are 7 x 3½ inches.  

Bears normally are silent when travelling. They emit grunts with young and may blow and click their teeth if they are upset. Loud, staggered grunts are used by females to threaten males that are unwanted. Moans are uttered when bears are behaving subordinately.