Black bears are the most common and widely distributed of the three North American bears. Historically, black bears occurred in all forested habitats in North America, including Mexico. The species has been extirpated from many eastern and mid-western states, but still occurs in 38 states, 11 Canadian provinces, and seven Mexican states.
In Arizona, the black bear is found in most woodland habitats, including pinyon-juniper, oak woodland, coniferous forest, and chaparral. An interesting footnote to black bear distribution in Arizona is the absence of any sizeable population of black bears north of the Colorado River.
Cubs are born during January in winter dens, usually in pairs, but larger litters are not uncommon. The cubs are very small and helpless at birth. Cubs emerge from the den in April and stay with their mother through the first summer and fall, denning with her their second winter. Female black bears in Arizona usually reach reproductive age in their fourth year, and usually breed every other year. Normal reproductive cycles in Arizona black bears may be adversely effected by drought and resultant poor physiological condition. Black bears are relatively long lived animals, with some individuals exceeding 20 years of age. The low reproductive potential of this species is becoming an increasingly important management consideration.
Bear hunting has a long history in Arizona. As late as 1928, bears were classified as predatory animals and could be shot or trapped at any time. In 1929, however, a new “game code” classified bears of all kinds as big game, provided a month-long open season, and prescribed a bag limit of one. Bears could not be trapped, but they could be taken with dogs. Later years were even more restrictive; cubs were protected in 1934, and in 1936, the bear season was closed south of the Gila River.
The status of bears deteriorated drastically during World War II. In 1942, all of the state’s refuges were open to bear hunting and the season was reopened in Cochise and Graham counties at the request of stockmen. In 1944, month-long fall and spring hunts were authorized. The following year bears lost their designation as game animals, and in 1949 a year-long season was authorized for Apache, Greenlee, Graham, and eastern Coconino counties, except during the seasons for other big-game species. After reinstating spring and fall bear seasons in 1950, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission again opted for year-long seasons from 1951 to 1953.
After 1954, bear regulations became more restrictive, tags were required to take one, and in 1968 the black bear was again classified as big game. This designation was appropriate as hunter interest in the species was increasing. Hunt success varied with weather conditions and population vagaries, but annual bear harvests ranged from 131 to 313 for the years 1964 through 1980. Relatively few bears were taken under the stock-taking clause, most of them being taken by sport hunters. Concern about the bear’s relatively low reproductive rate caused the Department to monitor the bear harvest more closely. Accordingly, mandatory checkout procedures were initiated in 1980. Other recent changes in regulations have included the authorization of a permit-only spring season in select units, the elimination of bearbaiting as a method of take, and unit harvest limits in which the season is closed after a certain number of female bears are taken. As of July 2006, bears hunters are required to present their bear to the Arizona Game and Fish Department for inspection.
Black bears are characterized as shy, secretive animals possessing considerable curiosity and displaying high levels of intelligence and exploratory behavior. Black bears are generally active in the early morning and late evening; they may alter their activity pattern to exploit sources of artificial food, becoming nocturnal at camp grounds and dump sites. Nuisance activities are nearly always associated with artificial food sources (beehives, campgrounds, and livestock).
Black bears are normally solitary animals, except for family groups (mother and cubs), breeding pairs, and congregations at feeding sites. Black bears are known to move long distances (100 miles) to exploit isolated pockets of food. The mobility of black bears sometimes leads them to appear in uncharacteristic habitats and to return from long distances after being moved. Most Arizona black bears hibernate from November through March, during which time they reduce body temperature, heart rate, and metabolic function, while still remaining somewhat alert in the winter den.
Breeding Period: Early July
Young Appear: January in hibernation
Average Number of Young: 2
Distribution: 4K-10K ft, forest areas throughout Arizona
Habitat: Chaparral pine forests and aspen-fir pine forests
Food Preference: Omnivorous- berries, roots, grass, cactus fruits, insects, and occasionally livestock
Range: 7-50 sq. miles
Live Weight: M-350lbs.; F-250lbs.
Predators: Practically none