American black bear
Credit: From Wikimedia Commons by Ryan E. Poplin, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Bears are omnivores. Although most species are formidable carnivores, they also eat plant material. Black bears in North America eat almost anything - deer, insects, acorns, honey, fish, rodents, roots, berries, and more.[1]

North America's most common bear

American black bears live in North America. They live from Alaska to Mexico, most often in hills or mountains south of Canada, and across most of Canada and Alaska. There are also Asian black bears, found through much of South and East Asia, which are a closely related species.[1]

Black bears in North America are not commonly seen in the wild. One reason is because individual bears command very large territories.[1] I’ve seen them in zoos, but despite exploring wilderness areas where they live for more than 25 years, I’ve never seen one in the wild.

My backyard faces a canyon of the Santa Ana Mountains in Southern California. They live in the mountains, but only one person I’ve ever spoken to has seen one there. The man I spoke with had a reservoir in a canyon of the mountains, and one morning while watching a deer take a drink, a black bear emerged and killed it.

Black bears aren’t always black, and many are brown, or sometimes even tan or white in color (see a photo of a white black bear below). Although these bears aren’t as large as some species, such as grizzlies or polar bears, they’re not small. Large males typically top 500 lbs (225 kg), and some top 800 lbs (360 kg).[1] For comparison, this is about the same weight range as male Bengal tigers, which are the largest cat species.[2]

American black bears and tourists
Credit: From Wikimedia Commons by Edd Prince, CC BY 2.0.

Tourists are often dangerously unfamiliar with the natural world. They stand and stare at a mother bear with her cub, unaware that they are risking their lives. This photo was taken in Tennessee.

What you need to know about black bears

Bears are naturally afraid of humans and prefer to stay away, and attack when they feel threatened, such as when a mother bear is protecting her cubs.[1] However, in recent years as humans encroach more upon wilderness areas, and cities expand to the edges of their natural habitats, they are being found more often in cities and are becoming less afraid of humans.[3]

Human fatalities from black bears are very rare, but have occurred.[3] Anyone exploring wilderness areas where they are found should be familiar with the information below about what to do should you encounter one.

Although I’ve never seen one in the wild, once when I was camping in Yosemite National Park, our neighbors, perhaps twenty feet (six meters) away, had a large cooler full of food. There were metal bear-proof lockers, but they didn't use them. In the morning the cooler was gone. Bears took it in silence during the night. We saw their tracks but no one heard a sound.

Here is additional info important to know about these animals (this is for black bears, and some of this advice changes for other species):

1. Bears have a more sensitive sense of smell than bloodhounds or any other mammal.[4]

2. If there is any way to steal your food, they will steal it.[6] They are one of the most intelligent of all animals, shockingly intelligent – similar to dolphins, apes, and elephants.[5]

3. You should never try to feed bears.[6]

4. Don’t get close to one, should you happen to see any. A common mistake is that people don’t realize how fast bears can run. They can run more than 30 mph (48 kilometers per hour), and can easily run down a person.[1][6]

5. They will be attracted to anything scented that you have – chapstick, medicines, vitamins, deodorants, etc. If you’re camping, don’t have anything like this in your tent.[6]

6. Don’t make eye contact with them, or try to fight them unless they attack (see #9 below). Don’t try to run – you will not win any race. Don't climb a tree, they're excellent tree climbers. If a bear wants your food, let the bear have it.[6]

7. Be very careful if you see a bear cub. Mothers are extremely protective. Petting a bear cub is only okay if you want to make an unplanned visit to a plastic surgeon for a few hours.[6]

8. Bears may run at you briefly as a bluff to see what you’ll do. Don’t move.[6]

9. If they actually attack, fight for your life with everything you’ve got, and scream for help. Having pepper spray on you can greatly help. Fall to the ground and play dead, covering your neck with your hands, ONLY if you're sure it's a mother protecting her cubs. In this case, stay on your stomach and if she turns you, get back on your stomach. If she doesn't leave soon and is attacking, you have to fight. Be loud and aggressive, stand your ground, and do anything you have to.[6]

10. Remember that bears don’t attack for no reason. Keep your distance and keep quiet, and you’re likely safe.[6]

11. For self-defense against bears, look into powerful pepper sprays made specifically for this purpose. These can be carried when hiking and camping. Don't use it unless you are being attacked!

Spirit bear
Credit: From Wikimedia Commons by Jackmont, CC BY-SA 3.0.

White black bears are called Kermode bears or spirit bears. They are found in parts of British Columbia, Canada.[7]