History of Black Bears

Below is a historic look at black bears in North America. If you’re a student or a teacher, there’s an entire section on Black Bear History in the downloadable Understanding Black Bears Curriculum with lesson activities for Grades 2 through 8 that include videos, maps, Rubrics and other fun learning materials.

old map

Before Columbus – When humans first entered North America some 15,000 years ago, bears inhabited every corner of the continent.

The grizzly bear thrived in all western states, ranging as far south as Mexico and as far north as the tip of Alaska. Related to the grizzly bear, but with certain behavioral, morphological, and physiological differences, the smaller black bear roamed North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Mexico to the northern edges of the continent.

To Native Americans, the black bear provided a valuable source of thick hides for clothing and shelter, rich meat, and sweet fat. The unique traits of the bear itself provided the essence of their legends. Native Americans pass on these legends through an oral tradition called storytelling. These stories teach the young, pass on a tribe’s rituals and beliefs, safeguard history, and entertain the listeners. Some stories describe how an animal acquired a physical characteristic while others tell about the animal’s relationships with people or other wildlife.

pioneer fights bear

Pioneers Arrive

Early American settlers found black bears in abundance when they arrived, but the bears represented more than a food source to early pioneers. Settlers brought with them European perceptions and behaviors; wilderness was viewed as threatening, as were the wild animals living in it. Bounties placed on predators became common, suchas the one-penny bounty for a dead wolf in Massachusetts Bay Colony. To the settlers, bears posed threats to their families, livestock, crops, and future. This attitude surfaced in popular nature books of that time which showed animals such as bears attacking hunters or eagles flying off with children.

logged off

Settlers did not just kill bears with their guns. Cutting, burning and clearing changed the wooded lands into open farm fields and pastures. As the wave of humans expanded, black bears lost much of their native habitat, restricting their populations to some of the more mountainous, swampy, and rugged regions of North America.


Conservation Awakens

The few black bears that remained in the mid 1800’s came under the pressure of unregulated market hunting for their hides, meat, and fat. Due to their low reproductive rate, bears recover more slowly from population losses than other North American mammals. By 1900, black bear numbers dwindled in many areas of the country, nearing the point of extinction.

Eventually, America began to realize the importance of wildlife management, including the plight of the black bear. By the mid 1900s, hunting seasons became heavily controlled, or closed altogether, and bear restoration programs began in some states. Meanwhile, the forests that had been cut and burned decades before began to grow again in many areas. As their wild habitat started returning, so did the black bears. Beginning in the late 1980s, through the start of the twenty-first century, black bear numbers increased at a rate of two percent per year continent-wide, with some states such as New Jersey and Maryland reporting a five-fold increase.

Though black bears have not reclaimed all of their original range across North America, their populations have rebounded to an estimated 800,000 bears in 37 states and Canada. Additionally, more states report black bears inhabiting areas they have not roamed for almost 100 years. However, humans continue to encroach into prime bear habitat. Today, black bears and humans increasingly compete for similar habitat components. That’s why wildlife officials ironically now wrestle with the evolving complexities of managing increasing number of bears within a limited landscape and increasing controversies of humans living in proximity to black bears.