American Black Bear information, especially the subspecies, Olympic Black Bear. Habitat, physical characteristics, photos, history, bear viewing.
The American Black bear (Ursus americanus) is the smallest, and most widely distributed bear species in the United States. Subspecies of the black bear are found regionally through North America, and the Olympic Peninsula is no exception. The Olympic Black Bear (Ursus americanus altifrontalis) is our own native black bear species.
The Olympic Black bear was first documented during a biological survey of animals in the Crater Lake, Oregon, area in 1896. But it wasn't until 1903 that it was officially recognized as a separate black bear species by American zoologist, Daniel Giraud Elliot.
Habitat and Range
The Olympic Black bear can be found throughout the southern half of British Columbia and throughout Washington State. Their range extends south to northwestern California, west of the Cascade mountain range in OR and CA.
Like most black bears, it prefers forest areas and meadows, much like you might find throughout the Olympic National Park.
Ursus americanus is listed by the IUCN as "least concern" - not threatened.
Characteristics of the Olympic Black Bear
The size of the Olympic Black Bear is fairly average for a black bear species, though larger than both the California and Cinnamon black bears.
99% of black bears in Washington are black in color, though dark brown individuals are occasionally seen. Visitors are more likely to see white to cream colored black bears in SW British Columbia; even blue-tinted bears have been spotted in BC and coastal Alaska.
Average lifespan in the wild is estimated to be about 18 years, with a maximum age of 30 for those in captivity.
A distinguishing feature of the Olympic subspecies of black bear include a wide, bulging forehead and a tan nose.
Olympic Black Bears are excellent foragers, feeding on berries, treenuts, roots, young shoots and buds. What they eat will always vary depending on what is found locally.
Non-vegetable portions include insects and larvae, eggs found in large nests, including the bald eagle, another prevalent animal found throughout the PNW.
Oh, and yes – they love honey!
Of course, favorite meals for Olympic black bears in Western Washington and British Columbia are the chinook and coho salmon found throughout the many local rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest.
General Info about American Black Bears
Olympic Black Bears are simply a subspecies of the American Black Bear, which exhibit these physical characteristics:
American black bears are generally 5-6 feet long. A male might weigh between 104–551 pounds (49.4 - 250 kg), with females weighing about 33% less (86–375 pounds, or 39 - 170 kg).
The American black bear is an apex predator classified as an omnivore.
The black bear's facial structure includes a broad skull, with a narrowing muzzle and big jaws (10-12 inches [25.4 - 30.5 cm] total for a male).
Small, round ears sit far back on the head.
Claws are short and curved, black or gray-brown; with a thick base that tapers to a point. A black bear is extremely dexterous, which aids in tree climbing, swimming, digging up insects or roots, and handling fruit, nuts or berries for meals.
The fur is soft, and has two layers – a dense underfur, as well as thick, coarse outer hairs. Coat color variation can range from white, blond, cinnamon, to a dark chocolate brown or jet black.
Though a black bear possesses good hearing and eyesight, their most acute sense is by far the sense of smell, which is seven times greater than that of a dog.
American black bears are excellent swimmers and tree climbers.
The American black bear lives independently, marking its territory by clawing tree bark, or rubbing against them.
Its home range may be as little as a five mile radius, or as great as one thousand! This varies due to location and availability of food.
Bears might be active day or night. Those bears found closer to humans tend to prefer nighttime foraging. On the other hand, individual bears living around brown bears (grizzlies) tend to be active during the day, so as not to disrupt the feeding habits of the much larger brown bears.
Did You Know?
Winnie the Poo was named for Winnipeg, a black bear cub living at the London Zoo from 1915 - 1934
Smokey Bear, mascot of the United States Forest Service (USFS), was in fact a real bear cub with singed feet after getting caught in the Capitan Gap fire of 1950
The Teddy Bear was named after President Teddy Roosevelt, who refused to shoot a bear cub out of a tree during a hunting expedition.
Reproduction and development
Females (sows) have their first litter between 3–5 years old, though they might become fertile younger in more developed areas
The breeding period lasts for 2–3 months, usually June-July, sometimes August in more northern regions. Fertilized eggs don't implant until November
The pregnancy lasts 235 days. Litters are usually born in January-February
Litters average 2-3 cubs, with possibly as many as 6.
Cubs weigh less than a pound at birth and are approximately 8 inches in length
Eyes open between 28–40 days
Start walking after 5 weeks
Cubs nurse for 30 weeks, reaching independence at 16–18 months
At 6 months old, they will weigh between 40-60 pounds
Prior to hibernating, bears gain up to 30 pounds (13.6 kg) of body fat.
They enter their dens in October or November. Bears aren't too picky about where to hibernate, choosing hollowed out tree cavities, under logs or rocks, in caves or banks, and in shallow depressions.
Typically, the hibernation period lasts 3–8 months, depending on regional climate.
Hibernation results in a drop in heart rate from 40–50 beats per minute to 8 beats per minute. Hormones suppress appetite. Waste elimination ceases; nitrogen in waste matter recycles back into protein manufacturing, preventing muscle loss. Body temperature remains fairly stable so that the bear remains moderately aware.
Native Black Bear Mythology
Black bears feature prominently in many native American stories.
The Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian peoples learned respect for bears when a girl married the son of a black bear Chieftain, according to stories retold through the ages.
Many native stories characterize the black bear as "good," whereas the brown bear (grizzly) is characterized as "evil."
What to do if you encounter an American Black Bear in the Wild
So you are out hiking with your family or friends along one of the many scenic trails deep in Olympic National Park. Suddenly, several yards ahead you spot an Olympic Black Bear foraging just off to one side of the trail. What do you do?
Here are some key actions you should (or should not) take:
First and foremost, remain calm. Remember: Bears rarely attack humans.
Talk calmly while avoiding eye contact with the bear (so as not to challenge it)
DO NOT RUN (bear might begin to chase you)
Calmly pick up small children, quieting them so they will not run or surprise bear by making much noise
Restrain your dog(s)
Back away slowly, or make a wide circle around bear. Never crowd or cut off a bear's escape route
If the bear stands, this does not mean he will charge, a standing bear only wants a better look
If the bear does feel threatened, he might slap the ground, huff, lunge, or chomp
Note: If you will be hiking or backpacking through black bear territory such as the Olympic National Park, it is advisable to carry bear spray. Not pepper spray -- bear spray.
Tips for maintaining a safe, bear-free campsite:
Follow Park guidelines when applicable
Investigate the area upon arrival, look for signs of bears – markings, scat, etc., remain highly alert
Do not camp near bear food sources (berry bushes, etc.)
Use the '100 yard rule' – set up tents 100 yards (99.44 m) upwind from cooking areas
Take care on how you set up tents
Food Storage and Cooking:
Never leave food out
Do not bring food into tents
Always store food properly when leaving the camp site
Purchase bear-resistant containers – bears are clever animals and can often manage to open coolers, latches, even car doors!
Avoid foods with strong odors
Hang food and garbage beyond the reach of bears as needed
Bears do occasionally wander near Hurricane Ridge or rarely down into the nearby lowlands surrounding the Olympic National Park. The young Olympic black bear in the video above had wandered into Dungeness Bay and onto Marine Drive in Sequim, Washington, an extremely rare occurrence.
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