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There’s an old joke about two men who are out hiking when they see a black bear.
“What should we do?” asks the first hiker.
“Run” replies the second.
“I don’t think we can outrun a bear” stammers the first.
“We can’t”, says the second, “but I know I can outrun you!”
It’s cheesy, no doubt, but this joke reveals two important characteristics of black bears: their incredible physical abilities and their uneasy relationship with humans. Because they are strong, fast, and angry, black bears are the kings of the land. But these attributes have also fostered an often violent hatred in humans for black bears.
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Let’s start with some background. Black bears are big creatures- males can weigh over 650 pounds and stand seven feet tall. Depending on location, a black bear’s coat can have a range of hues- from snow white and lemon blonde to chocolate brown and the dark, rich black that is the source of the bears’ name. Besides their size and coloring, black bears also have a unique, shuffle-like walk. This walk is due to both the difference in length between their hindlegs and forelegs and their stride, in which the legs on one side move together instead of alternating like other animals.
Black bears are perhaps best known for building dens and hibernating during the winter. During winter hibernation, the bears don’t eat or drink. However, the hibernation of black bears is not true hibernation, as the bears are still alert and their body temperature does not drop. In January and February, hibernating females give birth and nurse their young.
Finally, before we discuss the human-bear relationship, it’s important to note the wide diet of black bears. They are omnivores and will eat almost anything- carrion, deer fawns, cabbage, and even tree bark. They eat less meat than grizzly bears, but they prey on the same animals. In almost all areas, black bears sit at the top of the food chain (except when they coexist with other species, like brown bears and grizzly bears).
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Humans and Bears
The conflict between humans and bears is centered around black bear attacks on livestock and on humans. If wild food is limited in the spring months, when bears are particularly hungry, the black bears will feed on crops and livestock. Though they won’t usually kill larger animals like horses and steers, bears prey extensively on sheep, goats, pigs, and other smaller creatures. Not surprisingly, this behavior has led to extensive bear poaching by farmers. In addition, black bear fur was used for many articles of clothing over the past three hundred years, and is still used for bearskin hats.
While conservationists have been trying hard to reduce bear killing, their efforts have been hampered due to periodic attacks by bears on humans. These incidents, of course, shock the outdoors community and create calls for greater bear control. But black bears only attack when threatened; so the victims of these attacks were probably acting irresponsibly around the bears.
So while you may hear about the dangers of black bears, remember that these creatures are gentle by nature. Black bears value two things above everything else: food and their cubs. If you threaten either one, you’ll be faced with a seriously angry bear.