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Facts About Michigan Black Bears

Black Bear

Identification:

  • The black bear (Ursus americanus) is the only species of bear found in Michigan.


  • In Michigan, most black bears have black or extremely dark brown fur. Other color variations, including brown, cinnamon, grayish-blue and blonde, are found mostly in western North America.


  • Average adult black bears stand less than three feet tall at the shoulder when on all fours and are approximately three to five feet in length. Males are typically larger than females. Adult female black bears weigh approximately 90 to 300 pounds, and adult males weigh about 130 to 500 pounds.


  • Black bears are solitary animals, with the exception of females accompanied by cubs or yearlings and during the breeding season, when mature males and females can be seen together.

Dens and Breeding:

  • In Michigan, bears typically enter their den by December and come out in late March or April. Bears are not true hibernators because they only drop their body temperature by a few degrees, whereas a hibernating animal's body temperature is almost the same as its surroundings. Bears are easily awakened and capable of fleeing immediately if they feel threatened during their denning period.


  • Dens may be excavated or constructed as ground nests. Bears also will den in rock cavities, root masses, standing trees, openings under fallen trees, and brush piles.


  • Generally, female black bears are sexually mature at three to five years of age, yet are known to breed at two years of age in the Northern Lower Peninsula (NLP). Males are sexually mature at two years of age but typically do not participate in breeding until four to five years of age.


  • Cubs are born helpless and hairless, typically in January, while females are in the den. Cubs weigh 10 to 16 ounces at birth, but because of high fat content in their mother's milk, they grow quickly. By the end of their first summer, cubs typically weigh 50 to 60 pounds. Cubs stay with their mother for about a year and a half, denning together the winter after birth and separating in late May the following spring. Adult females typically breed every other year.

Life Span:

  • Black bears are relatively long-lived. In Michigan, black bears have been known to live to be over 30 years of age. Most recorded deaths in Michigan are from hunting or vehicle collisions.

Home-Range:

  • Black bears shift activity patterns seasonally in response to the availability of food. The area that a bear occupies seasonally or annually is referred to as its "home-range." The size of home-ranges typically varies by the sex and the age of the bear.


  • Females with newborn cubs have smaller home-ranges that gradually increase as cubs mature, and males' home-ranges are generally larger than females'.


  • Females in the northern Lower Peninsula have an average home-range size of about 50 square miles, and males have an average home-range size of about 335 square miles. Home-ranges of female bears generally overlap, but overlap of mature male home-ranges is less common.

Feeding:

  • Black bears are most active at dusk and dawn.


  • Black bears are omnivorous and opportunistic feeders, using both plant and animal matter.


  • In early spring, bears frequent wetlands, feeding on plants such as skunk cabbage, sedges, grasses and squawroot. Fruits and berries are important during summer and fall, including blueberry, elderberry, blackberry, juneberry, pokeberry, wild grapes, chokecherry, black cherry, dogwood and hawthorn. Hard mast from oaks, beech, hickory and hazelnut become important in the fall as bears accumulate significant fat reserves for the winter. Bears feed heavily in the fall and can gain as much as one to two pounds per day.


  • The majority of animal matter consumed by bears includes colonial insects and larvae such as ants, bees, beetles and other insects. However, bears are opportunistic feeders, and they are capable of preying on most small- to medium-sized animals including mice, squirrels, woodchucks, beaver, amphibians and reptiles. Under certain conditions bears may actively hunt for newborn white-tailed deer fawns. When available, bears also feed on carrion.


  • Human-related foods include agricultural crops (e.g. corn, apples, peaches and cherries), apiaries, bird feed and garbage.

Habitat:

  • Black bears are most frequently found in large, heavily forested areas. In Michigan, bears tend to use a mixture of vegetative cover types, including deciduous lowland forests and coniferous swamps, mature and early-successional upland forests, and some degree of forest openings consisting of grasses and forbs.


  • As black bears continue to move into the southern Lower Peninsula, it has become clear they can inhabit a highly fragmented landscape, provided some forested areas exist, especially along riparian zones. Some aspects of human activity contribute to suitability of these areas, including abundant food from row crops, orchards, apiaries, bird feeders and human refuse.

History and Hunting:

  • Bears existed in most of the forested habitat in the Great Lakes region prior to European settlement.


  • Throughout the history of aboriginal peoples of present-day Michigan, bears figured prominently in tribal culture and beliefs.


  • Bears were typically treated as pests by early European settlers arriving in Michigan. Bears were unprotected in the state until 1925. However, prior to 1925, some records were kept in county files, and these records indicated a range of one to 59 bears were reported killed each year between 1856 and 1915.


  • Black bears are shy, elusive animals, usually flee when encountered, and are generally not a threat to humans. However, bears are also large and powerful animals that have been known to injure and even kill humans if they feel threatened.


  • Supplemental feeding of bears involves the deliberate placement of foods to draw bears into the proximity of people for the purpose of enhancing viewing opportunities or augmenting naturally occurring food resources. Supplemental feeding is not advised by the DNRE because of the potential for habituating bears and making them more likely to become involved with negative bear-human interactions.


  • Sport hunting of black bears was first regulated in 1925, when the Michigan Legislature declared the species a game animal. Prior to 1925, bears could be taken at any time and by any means.


  • Using bait for bear hunting has always been legal in Michigan, and hunting bears with dogs became legal in 1939. Cubs were first protected in 1948, and in 1952 the Legislature empowered the Natural Resources Commission to open or close bear hunting seasons as necessary, and to prescribe methods of take. Also in 1952, bear trapping was outlawed except under special permit.


  • When regulated, the bag limit has been one bear per year per person in Michigan. Beginning in 1995, it became unlawful to take a female bear accompanied by cubs. Hunters in Michigan usually use bait, dogs or a combination of both to pursue bear.


  • Ecological regions (Eastern Upper Peninsula (EUP), Western Upper Peninsula (WUP) and NLP) are presently divided into 10 zones called Bear Management Units (BMUs). BMUs help distribute hunters and the bear harvest throughout the entire ecological unit, rather than allowing hunters to target animals only in optimal habitats. By distributing hunters throughout the ecological region, BMUs also help to assure that biological information obtained from harvested bears is representative of the entire region's population.


  • The quota system was established to limit the number of bear hunters and to better influence the distribution and density of hunters in the different Bear Management Units. Under the quota system, the number of hunters participating in each unit and hunt period is limited by the number of licenses issued to achieve a desired bear harvest.


  • The timing and length of bear hunting seasons varies throughout the state in order to achieve desired harvest levels, while at the same time providing ample recreational hunting opportunities. Additionally, the number of hunters who desire to hunt in a particular region also varies. In general, bear hunter demand is highest in Bear Management Units with a combination of high bear densities and close proximity to higher human populations.