Of the three species of bears living in North America, black bears (Ursus americanus) are the smallest, most abundant, and most widely distributed. They can be found in most of the forested areas of United States with the exception of Hawaii. They are quite abundant in Alaska, found on most of the mainland and many of the southeast Alaska islands. Though primarily living in the forests, they can range from alpine altitudes to sea level, depending on the season.
Adult black bears typically measure about five feet in length from nose to tail, weighing from about 180 to 200 pounds, with males being somewhat larger than females. They will weigh considerable more, 20 percent or more, in the fall when they have fattened up for their winter hibernation. Though called “black” bears, brown and cinnamon colors are also common to Ursus americanus in Alaska. Over its entire geographic range, the bears can be black to almost white in color. There is a glacier phase, appearing blue in color that has been reported in some areas of southeast Alaska and the Yakutat vicinity.
Black bears are omnivorous, eating most any foods that are available. They seek out fresh green vegetation in the spring when they emerge from winter hibernation, also readily eating carrion of animals that didn’t survive the winter. Some black bears will kill and eat newborn moose calves. During summer months, salmon is a favored food with the diet rounded out with vegetation, grubs, and insects. Blueberries and other berries are valued additions to the black bear diet in the fall.
As with all bear species, black bears are very powerful animals. Though typically secretive and cautious, they are often seen in some of Alaska’s largest cities, including Juneau, Fairbanks, and Anchorage near fish drying racks and garbage dumps where humans are encountered. They usually move away quickly after a warning snort, though rare, unprovoked attacks have been experienced. All bears should be respected as potentially dangerous, especially a mother bear with cubs. Extreme caution should be observed with any bear that seems to be unafraid of humans.
Black bears are mostly hunted today as trophy and food animals, being a traditional source of meat in some areas of Alaska. Due to their power and speed, black bear hunting tests the skills of hunters, making black bear pelts valued trophies. The State of Alaska requires that hunters obtain both a hunting license and a bear harvest permit to hunt black bears legally. Hunting must also be done in season with non-residents of the state required to have a licensed guide.
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