Volume , Issue

Part 1 – Identifying common North American bears and their habitat

After three negative human-bear conflicts at the end of June in the U.S., including a fatal grizzly (brown) bear attack in Glacier National Park (involving a U.S. Forestry Service Law Enforcement Officer), and two black bear attacks, (a marathoner in New Mexico and a camper in Southern California), it seems fitting that we look at the subject of bears. Many outdoor enthusiasts can light a fire eight different ways and can name 12 different edible cockroaches, but many have little knowledge of these majestic animals, often relying on myth to prevent and manage human-bear encounters. These encounters will only increase as urban areas expand into wildlife habitat and humans push deeper into protected wilderness spaces (Penteriani, V., et al (2016)).  

Eight species of bears exist in the world. North America is home to three: Ursus maritimus,the polar bear, Ursus americanus, the black bear, and Ursus arctos, the grizzly (brown) bear. This article will discuss the two species most likely encountered in North America: the black and the grizzly bear, although the basic concepts of bear safety can be applied in bear territory worldwide.

These large mammals live in the wilderness of North America as they have for hundreds of thousands of years. They are at the top of the food chain. Adventurers traveling, or living within or adjacent to wilderness areas, must expect that encounters with these animals are possible. The objective of this three-part series is to acquaint readers with some basic concepts in human-bear encounter prevention, response, and management.

It is believed that 12 of 13 provinces and territories in Canada, 40 states in the U.S., and six states in Mexico encompass either primary or secondary black and/or grizzly bears ranges. Approximately 950,000 black bears call the United States home including the State of Florida (2,500-3,000), New York State (6,000-8,000), and even Kentucky (approximately 500). In the West, grizzlies are plentiful, nearing 30,000 in Alaska and 15,000 in neighboring British Columbia. They can also be encountered in or near the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, and the Yellowstone area.  

Bears are typically solitary creatures that tend to avoid areas of human activity. Their habitat is usually forested areas, but also includes alpine meadows, dense forest, grasslands, and tundra. Bears are omnivorous, opportunistic feeders and tend to live in areas with abundant food sources. Preferred natural foods include grasses, berries, grains, roots, flowers, fungus, aquatic life, fish, rodents, and ungulates. However, improper storage and disposal of garbage and food stores containing rich, unnatural, high-caloric food sources in human-populated areas can lead to habituated, aggressive animals, often resulting in euthanasia (Hurerro 2003).

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The Ursidae family is highly evolved and is neither the ferociously unpredictable beasts nor the pleasant, cuddly companions as portrayed by Hollywood. Myths about bears include their unpredictability and that they are malicious and dangerous. However, most human-bear encounters resolve positively with each party heading on their merry ways. Predatory attacks do occur rarely, though, and the culprit is usually a lone male black bear (Herrero, 2003), often in poor physical condition. Other common occurrences of attacks (particularly grizzlies) are when the animals are protecting a food source a wilderness traveler may have stumbled upon or a mother protecting her cubs.  

Avoiding and coping with an encounter with one of these animals does not differ with species. However, identification of the two most common North American bears will aid in understanding how a bear may react. Please see the table below for the differences between the species. 

Bears are common and in many areas and are making a comeback. Misinformation about these amazing creatures remains extensive within the outdoor community. Those enjoying the wilderness in North America should be familiar with the geographic distribution and habitat of bears, how to avoid them, and what to if an encounter should occur. This will be discussed in Part Two.

For More Information:

Get Bear Smart Society 

InDepth - Episode 3 (Bonus Feature) - Identifying Black and Grizzly Bears (USPS Yellowstone video


Gadd, B. (2016) Handbook of the Canadian Rockies. Corax Press. Canmore, Canada 

Hurrerro, S. (2003) Bear Attacks Their Causes and Avoidances. McClelland and Stewart Ltd. Toronto, Canada

Penteriani, V., et al (2016) Human behaviour can trigger large carnivore attacks in developed countries. Scientific Reports. doi:10.1038/srep20552

Scheick, B.& McCown, B. (2014). Geographic distribution of American black bears in North America. Ursus: Vol. 25, Issue 1, pg(s) 24-33 doi: 10.2192/URSUS-D-12-00020.1

Wild Eye Productions, & AV Action Yukon Ltd.[Producers]. Staying Safe in Bear Country: a behavioral-based approach to reducing risk.[Motion Picture] Revised 2008.  

Van Tighem, Kevin (2013) Bears Without Fear. Rocky Mountain Books. Canmore, Canada

Wilerson, J., Moore, E., Zafren, K., ed. (2010) Medicine for Mountaineering & Other Wilderness Activities. 6th edition. The Mountaineers Books. Washington USA

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