How to identify Black Bear tracks and signs
About Black Bear
Black bears, a medium-sized bear, are omnivores with diets that vary greatly depending on season and location. They typically live in largely forested areas, but will leave forests in search of food. Sometimes black bears are attracted to human communities because of the immediate availability of food. The American black bear is the world’s most common bear species.
Black bear Characteristics
Black bears are highly dexterous, capable of opening screw-top jars and manipulating door latches. They are very strong with recorded cases of a black bear turning over 300 pound rocks with a single foreleg. Black bears can run up to 25-30 mph, have excellent eyesight, and a sense of smell about seven times greater than a dog’s. They are also very good swimmers and unlike brown bears, are excellent climbers.
Black bear size varies with those on the East Coast tending to be larger than those on the West Coast. Adult males typically weigh between 104 and 550 lbs. with females weighing between 86 to 375 lbs. Their fur is soft, with dense underfur and long, coarse, thick guard hairs. Despite their name, they show a wide variety of color variation with colors ranging from white, cinnamon, light brown, dark brown, or black. They differ from grizzly bears in size, shorter claws, and lack of the muscular hump between their shoulders.
Black bears tend to be territorial and non-aggressive in nature. During hibernation, they may remain dormant for months without eating, drinking, urinating, or defecating (their heart rate drops from 40-50 beats per minute to 8 beats per minute). Unlike true deep hibernators, the black bear’s body temperature does not drop significantly during hibernation which allows them to remain somewhat alert and active.
Black bear tracking and signs
Black bear tracks are flat-footed, large, and somewhat human in appearance except their largest toe in on the outside of the foot and their feet are rounder. Bears show five toes on both the front and hind tracks. The negative space between the toes is filled with fur.
The black bear’s front feet are more rectangular than the rear feet. The heel pad may appear in the track as a separate circle below the metacarpal pad. They will likely show claws too with the claws on the front feet appearing longer and with a larger gap between the toe and claw. With a good print, the rear foot will appear longer with a heel that tapers to a blunted point (sometimes the back of the rear foot does not register in the track). Front feet measure between 4”-8” long by 3.25”-6” wide. Rear feet measure between 5”-9” long by 3.5”-6” wide.
Black bear typically walk but may also trot, lope, and gallop (read general animal signs and tracking for details on gait patterns). They travel in an overstep walk with rear tracks landing ahead of the front track. The overstep walk is generally between 19” to 28” stride length and 8” to 14” trail width. While in a lope, the stride length is generally 25” to 30” and group length (length of the entire set of 4 tracks together) is typically 38” to 50” long.
Grizzly bear tracks are similar to the black bear, but are almost always larger measuring 7″ – 13” long by 5-8.75” wide for front tracks, and 8.25″-14” long by 4.75″ – 8.5” wide for the hind tracks. Claws on the front feet of grizzly bears are also generally longer than those of black bears.
The black bear’s diet consist primarily of insects such as bees, yellow jackets, ants, and their larvae. They will also eat fruit, berries, bulbs, and catkins. And yes, they are fond of honey. Black bears in northern coastal regions will fish for salmon during the night. They may prey on deer and mule on occasion.
Black bear scat is commonly tubular and segments, often in piles. Often seeds, fruit, berries, and fur are visible in the scat. Black bear scat measures about 5”-12” long by 1.25”-2.5” in diameter.
Black bears travel freely throughout forests but may use trails to reach water sources and to search for food.
Beds and lays
After putting on about 30 pounds of fat, black bears enter their dens in October and November and may hibernate from 3-8 months depending on the region’s climate. They spend their time in hollowed-out trees, under logs or rocks, in caves or culverts, and in shallow depressions. Many times dens are dug out by the bear itself (especially common with female black bears).
Black bears mark their territories by rubbing their bodies against trees and clawing at the bark. Bears also climb trees and may leave claw marks during the climb.
During spring, black bears may feed on the cambium of young trees by pulling off the bark and raking the cambium with their lower teeth.
Groups and species
Ursus americanus amblyceps
New Mexico black bear
Native to Colorado, New Mexico, west Texas, the eastern half of Arizona into northern Mexico, and southeastern Utah
Ursus americanus americanus
Eastern black bear
Eastern Montana to the Atlantic coast, from Alaska south and east through Canada to the Atlantic and south to Texas. Thought to be increasing in some regions.
Common to Eastern Canada and U.S. wherever suitable habitat is found. A large-bodied subspecies, almost all specimens have black fur. May very rarely sport a white blaze on chest.
Ursus americanus californiensis
California black bear
Mountain ranges of southern California, north through the Central Valley to southern Oregon
Able to live in varied climates: found in temperate rainforest in the north and chaparral shrubland in the south. Small numbers may feature a cinnamon brown fur.
Ursus americanus carlottae
Haida Gwaii black bear, Queen Charlotte black bear
Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte Islands and Alaska
Generally larger than its mainland counterparts with a huge skull and molars, and is found only as a black color phase
Ursus americanus cinnamomum
Idaho, western Montana, and Wyoming, eastern Washington and Oregon, northeastern Utah
Has brown or red-brown fur, reminiscent of cinnamon
Ursus americanus emmonsii
Southeast Alaska. Stable.
Distinguished by the fur of its flanks being silvery gray with a blue luster
Ursus americanus eremicus
Mexican black bear
Northeastern Mexico and US borderlands with Texas. Very endangered.
Most often found in Big Bend National Park and the desert border with Mexico. Numbers unknown in Mexico, but presumed very low.
Ursus americanus floridanus
Florida black bear
Florida, southern Georgia, and Alabama
Has a light brown nose and shiny black fur. A white chest patch is also common. An average male weighs 136 kg (300 lb).
Ursus americanus hamiltoni
Newfoundland black bear
Generally bigger than its mainland relatives, ranging in size from 90 to 270 kg (200 to 600 lb) and averaging 135 kg (298 lb). It has one of the longest hibernation periods of any bear in North America. Known to favor foraging in fields of Vaccinium species.
Ursus americanus kermodei
Kermode bear, spirit bear
Central coast of British Columbia
Approximately 10% of the population of this subspecies have white or cream-colored coats due to a recessive gene and are called “kermodes” or “spirit bears”. The other 90% appear as normal-colored black bears.
Ursus americanus luteolus
Louisiana black bear
Eastern Texas, Louisiana, southern Mississippi. Threatened (federal list).
Has relatively long, narrow, and flat skull, and proportionately large molars. Prefers hardwood bottom forests and bayous as habitat
Ursus americanus perniger
Kenai black bear
Kenai Peninsula, Alaska
Ursus americanus pugnax
Dall black bear
Alexander Archipelago, Alaska
Ursus americanus vancouveri
Vancouver Island black bear
Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Found in the northern section of the island, but occasionally will appear in the suburbs of Vancouver metropolitan area