Site hosted by Build your free website today!



the crew








Arkansas Black Bears

...more on Arkansas Black Bears

Photos by Bill Lea


Ursus americanus, meaning bear of America, is the largest mammal in Arkansas. At one time the species was so numerous in the state that Arkansas was referred to as the "Bear State" (Wiley 1991).

Before the turn of the 20th century, black bears were found in most of North America, from the tree limits of the Arctic through most of Canada and the United States.  Black bears were also found as far south as the Sierra Madre Mountains in northwest Mexico (Middleton 1996).  In Arkansas, black bears were located in much of the state. By the 1940s and 50s, after extirpation by settlements and sport hunting, only a few individuals were found in the Ozarks, Ouachita Mountains, Mississippi River bottoms, and in the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Between 1959 and 1967, 254 bears from Minnesota and Canada were relocated in the Ozarks and Ouachita Mountains. By 1990 there were about 2000 bears in Arkansas (Sealander 1990). Today there are about 3000 black bears in the state (Goad 1999).


The black bear has a long muzzle with a straight facial profile and a broad nose pad; medium-sized round, erect ears and small eyes; rather short, stout legs and a very short tail that may not be seen due to long, thick hair (Sealander 1990). All feet have five toes with short, curved, non-retractile claws. Black bears lack a distinctive shoulder hump of the grizzly bear (Middleton 1996).


Length: 270 - 1980 mm (50 - 78 in)
Tail: 80 - 280 mm (3.2 - 11.0 in)
Hind foot: 184 - 280 mm (7.2 - 11.0 in)
Ears: 132 - 142 mm (5.2 - 5.6 in)
Skull: 254 - 336 mm (10.0 - 3.2 in )
Weight: 100 - 227 mm (200 - 600 lb)

Dental Formula

I 3/3 C 1/1 P 4/4 M 2/3 Total 42 The small premolars are seldom seen in adults (Schwartz 1959).

Black bears have glossy hair ranging from black to chocolate brown. Some may be cinnamon or red-brown (Schwartz 1959). The Kermode bear, or ghost bear, is a cream to white color with brown eyes and black nose, indicating that this is a color variation, not an albino race. A black bear's weight varies with the availability of food and climate conditions (see measurements). They have poor eyesight, but excellent hearing and sense of smell (Middleton 1996). Unlike most carnivores, the lips of the black bear are not attached to the gums (Middleton 1997). They are not very vocal, but at times may grunt, mumble, squeak, roar, or moan. The young have been heard to whimper (Schwartz 1959). The average lifespan of the black bear is about 25 years (Sealander 1990).

Life History

Black bears prefer remote, heavily forested areas, impenetrable thickets and canebrakes along rivers and streams. They do not appear to adapt to humans well (Sealander 1990). In the summer, bears sleep in trees or on the ground. During denning, they will use any sheltered spot, such as caves or hollow trees. They construct a bed of grass, leaves, and twigs (Schwartz 1959).

Black bears prefer feeding in the early morning or late evening, although they are active at night (Middleton 1996). The bulk of the black bear's diet in summer is vegetable matter, such as fruitand berries; in fall, they feed on seeds and nuts (Sealander 1990). Black bears will also eat ants and other insects, fish, frogs, small rodents and carrion, even other dead bears. They may find a food source, feed on it, then cover it and return to feed again later (Schwartz 1959).

Home range for the black bear is not one large area, but several small feeding areas connected by traveling paths. The female's home range is about 6.5 to 26 square kilometers (2.5 to 10 square miles), and the male's is 26 to 124 square kilometers (10 to 40 square miles). The male's home range will overlap the home range of several females (Middleton 1996). Bears may scar trees to mark their range (Schwartz 1959).

Black bears are not very sociable within the species. They become aggressive around feeding sites and during mating time. Antagonistic bears frequently rear up on their hind legs and wrestle. At such time, severe fights may occur (Schwartz 1959).

Black bears walk with a lumbering gait and can run short distances at speeds of 25 miles per hour. They may stand up on their hind legs to get a better view of the surroundings. Black bears are well-adapted for climbing; they descend a tree rear end first. They can swim well and have been known to swim up to five miles (Schwartz 1959).

Reproduction and Development

Female black bears reach sexual maturity at about three years of age with some variation (Sealander 1990). Mating time in Arkansas is in May to early June. Copulation is similar to that of the canine family (Schwartz 1959). The female will mate with several males. After mating, males and females go their separate ways. Females normally mate in alternate years. After a gestation period of about seven months, the cubs are born in January or February (Sealander 1990).

Black bears undergo delayed implantation. The fertilized ovum will divide a few times, then float freely in the uterus for about six months without developing. Around denning time, the embryo will implant in the uterine wall. After a period of about eight weeks, the cub will be born while the mother is still in hibernation. Delayed implantation serves an important survival process for the mother. If she fails to gain enough fat to carry her through the winter, the embryo will not implant and is then  reabsorbed by her body (Middleton 1996).

After birth, the cubs feed on the mother's milk, which is very rich in fat. The litter size will vary from one to five cubs, with two being the norm. The cubs are born very small, weighing only about six to eight ounces. They are blind, toothless, and covered with fine hair (Middleton 1996). They open their eyes, cut teeth, are well-furred, and weigh about two pounds at six weeks of age. At the age of two months, the cubs leave the den with their mother and continue to nurse through their first summer. They may den with the mother the following winter. Young bears may stay with their litter mates through the second summer (Schwartz 1959).


Arkansas black bears begin denning in November and December. Black bears do not go into true hibernation. Their body metabolism drops only 40 to 50 percent; temperature drops seven to eight degrees: and heart rate from 40 to 50 beats per minute to eight to nineteen beats. Their body weight loss is 20 to 27 percent. Arkansas black bears are less lethargic than northern black bears. They may become active in the winter months (Sealander 1990). Male black bears hibernate alone; females may have cubs with them. Arkansas black bears leave the den in early April (Goad 1999). At that time, some may exhibit extreme thirst. They drop a fecal plug, enlarged droppings, which contain the waste of their previous fall feeding (Schwartz 1959).


Occasionally a black bear may become a nuisance around trash dumps or camps in Arkansas (Goad 1999). They may prey on beehives, as honey is a favorite food; also, they may raid orchards and berry patches (Sealander 1990). If a black bear should become a problem, contact the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and they will remove the bear. Arkansas population of black bears has increased the numbers that will allow a limited hunt. In 1997, 184 black bears were harvested in the state (Goad 1997). For more information on black bear, contact the Commission at AGFC Bear Page.

Literature Cited Goad, D. 1997. 1997-98 Black bear harvest report. Goad, D. 1999. Telephone interview 16 April 1999. Middleton, D. 1997. The modern archetypal bear. Middleton, D. 1996. The bears den. Sealander, J.A., G.A. Heidt. 1990. Arkansas mammals. University of Arkansas press, Fayetteville, 207 pp. Schwartz, C.W., E.R. Schwartz. 1959. The wild mammals of Missouri. University of Missouri press, Kansas City, 277 pp. Wiley, R. 1991. Professor of biology, UAM, Class notes. Photographs courtesy of Bill Lea, American Bear Association. The author would like to thank David Henderson for his help. Project Author: Jo Reynolds