Professional bear managers need to know a lot about bear biology and behaviors. They also need to know a lot about the challenges of managing how people co-exist living near bears. It’s a delicate balance between managing the “biological carrying capacity” (the number of bears the habitat can support) and the “cultural carrying capacity” (the number of bears society is willing to tolerate).
The movies and information on this website will give you a better understanding of and respect for the challenges facing America’s bear management professionals. Ask most of them, and you’ll discover that their handling and working so closely with bears has inspired their admiration of black bears.
The downloadable Understanding Black Bears Curriculum also has a number of activities about bear management. In the Home Sweet Home section, various lesson activities offer videos, maps, scientific data, and other materials to help students work through different scenarios on scientifically managing black bears. Lessons also explore managing human impacts on bear populations.
Long before humans began inhabiting North America, bears ranged across the entire continent.Though bears co-existed with native populations of humans inhabiting North America for some 15,000 years, the arrival of European settlers rapidly reshaped the distribution of grizzly and black bears. Because of their extreme Arctic habitat, polar bears remained mostly insulated from the effects of pioneer America. Like other wildlife resources that the settlers found in abundance, they took bears freely with traps and guns. Grizzly and black bears represented more than just food and furs to settlers. They posed real and perceived threats to families, livestock, and crops, so they shot bears at will.
Besides killing individual bears, the settlers’ plows and axes took a lasting and wider toll. Woodcutting, burning, and clearing changed the wild habitat that the bears needed to survive. Within a 150-year period, much of America’s forests had been cut down. As the wave of human expansion changed the wooded lands into farm fields and pastures, grizzly and black bears lost much of their native habitat. In many places they ultimately lost their ability to survive in man’s tamed world.
On June 15, 1756, John Adams wrote in his diary:
“Consider, for one minute, the Changes produced in this Country, within the Space of 200 years. Then, the whole continent was one continued dismal Wilderness, the haunt of Wolves and Bears and more savage men. Now, the Forests are removed, the Land covered with fields of Corn, orchards bending with fruit, and the magnificent Habitations of rational and civilized People. Then our Rivers flowed through gloomy deserts and offensive Swamps. Now the same Rivers glide smoothly on through rich Countries fraught with every delightful Object, and through Meadows painted with the most beautyful scenery of Nature, and of Art…The narrow Hutts of the Indians have been removed and in their room have arisen fair and lofty Edifices, large and well compacted Cities.”
The United States was founded during the shift from a late agricultural to an early industrial economy. At the time of European settlement, Native Americans were living in hunter-gatherer or horticultural societies. The clashes between these two cultures had disastrous outcomes for Native Americans. The settling of pioneer America also witnessed dramatic declines in wildlife populations. Similar cultural attitudes and behaviors towards large carnivores also affected black bear populations during the early settling of America.
Black bear populations remained in some of the more mountainous, swampy, and rugged regions. The few black bears that inhabited these regions came under the pressures 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, the black bear population shrank in many areas of the country almost to the point of extinction. Grizzlies were also almost eradicated from the lower 48 states.
A Trend Turns
Belatedly, much of North America began to realize the importance of wildlife management, including the future of the black bear. By the mid 1900s, hunting seasons became heavily controlled or closed altogether, and bear restoration programs began in some states. While all this was happening, the forests that had been cut and burned decades before began to recapture the landscape. Once the wild habitat started to return, black bears began reclaiming their historic range.
Black bears are more adaptable to human development than grizzly bears, so their populations recovered in many areas. Beginning in the late 1980s through the start of the twenty-first century, black bear numbers increased at a rate of two percent a year continent-wide, with some states such as New Jersey and Maryland reporting five-fold increases. Though black bears have not yet reclaimed their original range across America, they have rebounded to populations of an estimated 800,000 bears spread across 37 states and all Canadian provinces.
Grizzlies are less adaptable to living near humans, so they have not rebounded like black bears. In fact, grizzly bear populations have been eliminated from 98 percent of their former range in the lower 48 states. However, small populations of grizzlies remain in the remote regions in and around Yellowstone Park.
In the far north, the arctic environment that has offered polar bears relative insulation from the impacts of human development is being impacted by climate change. Some scientists believe that these new changes in the polar bears’ environment will negatively affect their populations and distribution.
Black Bear Management
Few diseases trouble black bears, although their sugar-rich diet increases dental cavities. Threats to black bears include predators such as the grizzly bear; other black bears, especially older, dominant males; wolves, which may prey on cubs; and humans. Human impacts on black bear populations include habitat loss, vehicle collisions, hunting, poaching, and euthanasia of problem bears involved in human-bear encounters.
The biological carrying capacity of various habitats can sometimes support more black bears than humans in the area are willing to tolerate. This number, which is often less than the biological carrying capacity, is called the cultural carrying capacity. Wildlife management personnel use a variety of strategies to mediate potential conflicts between bears and humans. If there are more bears living near humans than humans are willing to tolerate, biologists might trap and relocate some bears to an area with fewer bears – although this strategy has very limited effects on the real issue of overall population. Efforts to educate the public about sharing the land with black bears can affect the cultural carrying capacity in an area. To manage the bear population to stay within the biological or cultural carrying capacity of the area, wildlife agencies may also permit regulated hunting.