Bear Facts

Bears [bârz]

Large, hibernating mammals with sharp claws and shaggy fur.

wild bear standing in grass

There are 8 different kinds of bears — American black bears, polar bears, giant panda bears, Asiatic black bears, sloth bears, spectacled bears, sun bears, and brown bears, also known as grizzly bears.

Where Do Bears Live?

brown bear looking out of its den

Black bears or their relatives live on all continents except Africa, Australia, and Antarctica. Approximately 630,000–725,000 American black bears live in 42 states. They also inhabit 11 Canadian provinces. Grizzly bears (also known as brown bears) and polar bears inhabit North America too.

The most common bear in Idaho is the Ursus Americanus, otherwise known as the American black bear. Baby bears are called cubs, female bears are called sows, and male bears are called boars.

How Big is a Bear?

black bear body

Brown bears and polar bears are the biggest bears. They can be over 6 feet long and can weigh from 100 to 600 pounds. Sun bears, which live in southeast Asia, are the smallest bears. They weigh about 100 pounds or 45 kg.

We see bears depicted everywhere as cuddly stuffed toys, as humanlike characters in fairy tales and cartoons, and as ferocious beasts. But few people ever see the real thing. Bears are a beautiful, shy animal that is far from both its cute toy image and its man-killing myth.

brown bear standing

It is difficult to assess the size of bears because of their build and their coats. Bear weight estimates of more than 400 pounds are common, but usually inaccurate. Even bear researchers have a tough time judging the size of a bear.

Newborns: Eight ounces (0.22 kg)

One-year-old females: 30–50 pounds (13.5–22.5 kg)

One-year-old males: 50–70 pounds (22.5–31.5 kg)

Mature females: 120–140 pounds (54–63 kg); 51–54 inches (127.5–135 cm)

Mature males: 240–280 pounds (108–126 kg); 56–61 inches (140–152.5 cm)

Bear Senses

brown bear nose

In the forest, bears rely on their acute hearing and super sense of smell. Their noses identify smells much fainter than those humans can. With this super sense of smell, they can detect other animals that are nearby, and they can find fruit, insect larvae, and other foods.

Bears can probably see as well as humans can. They can recognize shapes but not details at a distance, and they see moving objects better than stationary objects.

When you've got to find lots of food on the ground, sharp eyes that see color can come in handy. And that's exactly what the black bear has. Although their night vision is also excellent, bears forage for fruit during the day when they can perceive colors.

Bear Feet

bear foot

Bears walk on their feet as humans do, with their soles flat on the ground. If you look at other mammals, such as a cat or dog, you'll see that they walk on their toes. Look for tracks like these:

Polar bears have specialized pads on their feet that keep them steady on slippery ice and snow. They also have extra fur and insulation to protect their feet from the cold.

claws bear paws

All species of bear have claws — some species have longer claws than others. They use these for foraging, digging, climbing, pulling dead trees apart to get to insects, grabbing, and for defense.

They usually walk on all fours, though sometimes they will get up on their hind feet to identify smells or to see over bushes. A bear that is in a defensive situation will also stand upright to look larger.

What Do Bears Eat?

Bears must eat constantly during spring, summer, and fall, and they'll eat an amazing variety of foods. Although they are often portrayed as ferocious carnivores, bears are omnivores, which means they eat both meat and plants.

brown bear catching a fish

Black bears can digest plant fibers better than other meat-eaters, but they don't have the multi-chambered stomachs that elk and other herbivores do. For this reason, they must eat a lot of plants to obtain enough nutrition.

In spring, bears search for newly emerged grasses and broadleaved plants in the early morning and late afternoon. To conserve energy, they rest a lot.

Their rate of feeding increases as food quality increases. In summer they will eat throughout the day as they search for nutritious food such as berries. By eating the most when the best quality food is available, bears quickly fatten up for their coming hibernation.

Black bears seldom hunt and chase down big animals for food. The only time black bears are likely to search for meat is in the spring when plant food is still scarce. During this time, bears may look for newborn deer, elk, and moose.

At any time of year, bears are likely to use their teeth and curved front claws to rip open a log full of swarming ants and lap up the insects by the hundreds. Their curved claws also come in handy for climbing trees to reach nuts and fruits that deer and grizzly bears can't reach.

blueberry bush

When a black bear finds a patch of berries, it will spend hours delicately plucking the berries from the bush. It doesn't have the same dexterous fingers as humans have to pluck fruit. Instead, it uses its flexible lips. A bear's lips can bend and grasp much the way a monkey's tail can grasp a limb. With these “prehensile” lips, a bear can grasp berries one by one.

Berries provide bears with vital nutrition. During a good berry year, bears thrive. But if the crop fails, as it does periodically, bears may have difficulty finding enough food. Near the town of Council, Idaho for example, bears eat eight kinds of berries.

If one crop fails, they can find other berries to eat. But near Priest Lake, Idaho bears depend on only three kinds of berries, the most important being huckleberries. If the huckleberries fail, bears have difficulty finding enough to make up for the loss. This can be a critical issue for young bears because they depend on berries to build up their reserves for the winter. If they don't have enough food to eat in the late summer and fall, their chances of surviving the winter are reduced. Berry crop failures also affect female bears' ability to produce young the following winter.

People who portray bears as fat- butterballs haven't seen a scrawny bear emerging from its den in the spring. During hibernation, a black bear may lose 30–50% of its fat reserves. This weight loss continues in the spring because food is scarce. When the summer berry season arrives, they finally begin gaining weight again. They repeat the same pattern annually — gaining weight in the summer and fall and then losing it in the winter and early spring. Females that are rearing cubs may lose weight the entire year that they are nursing their young.

Winter Sleep

brown bear sleeping in a cave

Depending on where they live, most American black bears go into dens for at least part of the winter. Hibernation enables them to live in places where food is not abundant year-round instead of migrating as animals such as elk do.

Hibernation also helps pregnant females conserve energy and nurture their helpless newborns. For this reason, female black bears hibernate for part of the winter wherever they live. Males might not hibernate at all if they live in southern states such as North Carolina.

Contrary to popular belief, weather doesn't seem to affect the time that bears go into their dens. They are just as likely to begin hibernating on a warm December day as during a blizzard.

What does affect their timing is food. If food is scarce, bears might den earlier. If food is abundant, they might delay denning so they can continue feeding.

Like hibernators such as chipmunks, a bear's respiration rate drops to as low as eight breaths a minute during deepest sleep. Unlike other hibernators though, a bear's body temperature falls only slightly, perhaps because of the bear's large body size and the fact that it metabolizes fat reserves while hibernating.

Bears also don't need to wake up to eliminate body wastes and eat from food they have stored in their dens. Instead, they metabolize their body wastes into useable products and obtain the food they need from their fat reserves.

Idaho's black bears begin moving to their dens in mid-October and may sleep for 4–7 months. In general, male black bears are the last to begin hibernating and the first to emerge in the spring. Females with new cubs are the last to emerge from their winter homes.

Some species of bear such as the Sun bear, Andean bear, and the Polar bear do not hibernate.

Facts by Bear Species

black bear in summer

Black Bears

  • 98% of a bear's diet is plants
  • Eats lots of insects
  • Captures elk, moose calves, and deer fawns in spring; does not kill larger ungulates
  • Profile of face is straight
  • No hump between its shoulders
  • Average male weighs 250 pounds (113.4 kg)
  • Average height is 3 feet (0.9 m)
  • Average length is 4–6 feet (1.6–2.7 m)
  • Adults easily climb trees
  • Lives about 18–20 years, has been known to live to 30
  • Smokey Bear is a famous black bear

Grizzly Bears

grizzly bear
  • Eats insects, captures elk, moose calves, and deer fawns in spring
  • Also called a brown bear
  • Capable of bringing down bull elk
  • Dished-in face with high brow
  • Hump between its shoulders
  • Average male weighs 490 pounds; average height is 3–5 feet (0.9–1.5 m)
  • Average length is 7–10 feet (2–3 m)
  • Adults seldom able to climb trees
  • Lives about 25 years
  • 90% of diet is plants
  • Yogi Bear is a famous grizzly bear
giant panda

Panda Bears

  • White faces with black ears and teadrop shaped black areas around their eyes
  • Short, white tails
  • Cubs look more like puppies and do not have the black and white features
  • Average two to three feet tall when on all four legs
  • Usually lives 15–25 years
  • Lives in dense mountain forests
  • Very shy, unless cubs are threatened
  • Few enemies, except man, so avoids humans
  • At one time was thought to be related to the racoon
  • Can eat 30–45 pounds of bamboo per day
  • Endangered
  • Master Po Ping from the movie Kung Fu Panda is a famous panda bear
polar bear in Greenland

Polar Bears

  • Only lives in the Arctic
  • Eats mostly seals
  • Does NOT live in the Antarctic
  • Closely related to the brown bear
  • Small ears and small tail
  • Thick layer of fat keeps them warm in the cold climate
  • Lives 15 to 18 years
  • Most often born as twins
  • They do not hibernate, but pregnant females will dig dens in the winter, stay until the cubs are born and then emerge from the den in March or April
  • Adult bears will sometimes fight each other for food
Andean bear

Andean Bear

  • Also called spectacled bears because of markings around their eyes that resemble eyeglasses or spectacles
  • Lives in Andes Mountains of South America
  • Has a short nose which gives them a dog-like appearance
  • Lives about 20 years
  • Males are larger than females
  • Eats honey, bamboo, insects, corn, and sometimes livestock
  • Good climbers and swimmers
  • Excellent sense of smell
  • Avoids humans
  • Does not hibernate
  • Cubs are usually born as twins
  • Paddington is a famous Andean bear
Asiatic Black bear

Asiatic Black Bear

  • Also known as the moon bear
  • Cousin to the American Black Bear
  • Black coat
  • Has a v- or moon-shaped marking on the chest
  • Prefer tropical forested areas
  • Lives in eastern Asia and lands of the orient (Japan, Cambodia, China, and others)
  • Constructs platforms in trees using branches to live in
  • Will sometimes eat carrion
  • Endangered
  • May hibernate, but usually migrate to avoid it
two sloth bears playing

Sloth Bear

  • Lives in the forests of India
  • Eats insects and fruit
  • Can close their nostrils (nose) to keep insects out
  • Black shaggy fur
  • Have cream-colored markings on their chest
  • Have a gap in their teeth that allows them to suck up insects
  • Grow to 5 or 6 feet long
  • Cubs are born as twins in underground dens
  • Mostly nocturnal
  • Uses lips to suck up food
  • Females will carry cubs on their back
  • Baloo from Jungle Book is a famous sloth bear
Malaysian Sloth bear

Sun Bear

  • Smallest of all bears
  • Lives in the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia
  • Mustard-colored markings on their chest
  • Brown or black coat
  • Live in trees
  • Nocturnal
  • Skilled climbers
  • Long tongue for extracting insects from their colonies
  • Eats insects, fruits, and other plants
  • Also eats rodents, birds, and lizards
  • Generally avoids humans but may come in contact when invading humans' gardens for food
  • Does not hibernate
  • Cubs born as singles or twins

Bears in Idaho

People who live in Idaho are lucky to share their forests with a few grizzlies and a lot of black bears. As many as 20,000 black bears inhabit Idaho, but if you go looking for truly black bears, you might be surprised!

In Idaho, you are just as likely to see a black bear that is brown in color as you are to see a black bear that is black in color. Black bears that live in the western states are often various shades of brown similar to grizzly bears.

Eastern bears are usually black. Black bears also come in white (the Kermode bear of coastal British Columbia) and blue (the glacier bear of west-central British Columbia and southeastern Alaska) color phases.

In Idaho, black bear habitat spreads over 30,000 square miles of forest, mostly north of the Snake River Plain. Less than one-fourth of bear habitat is on private lands. The rest is managed by a variety of state and federal agencies, including the United States Forest Service which oversees three-fourths of the bear habitat in Idaho. Idaho's forests can support 20,000–25,000 bears, but the actual population is probably lower than that.

Idaho's black bears are creatures of the forest. Camouflaged by its dark fur, a black bear easily fades into the shadows. It can move quietly on its soft, broad foot pads.

Being able to navigate the forest quietly and unseen helps a bear avoid other bears as it searches for food. If a young bear accidentally comes across a large adult male, who could consider the youngster a competitor, the younger animal needs to retreat before being seen. If necessary, it can run 30 miles (48 km) per hour or paddle across a lake!

Bear Range

Because bears have to eat so much, they need lots of room to search for their food and not much competition with other animals. Scientists theorize that this is why bears usually live alone unless they have cubs.

wild grizzly bear in Alaska

In Idaho, where food supplies are limited, bear home ranges tend to be large and have loose boundaries. Generally, male ranges are larger than female ranges. Sometimes male bears will cover more than 50 square miles and will include the ranges of several females. This arrangement ensures the male will have a number of females for mating.

Female bears occupy home ranges that average 12 square miles and often overlap with other females. Bears have a definite social system for those times when they congregate around rich food sources. As with other large and powerful animals, a social order allows bears of differing ages, sexes, and strengths to feed closely without erupting into violent battles.

two brown bears fighting

Roaring or raising hackles is often all it takes for an adult male to establish his dominance. Bears also communicate with vocalizations and with scent. A bear might stand and rub its back, shoulder, and head on a tree to leave a fragrant message that tells other bears, “I've been here,” or “I'm ready to find a mate.”

People and Bears

Trash hunting black bear

Even though thousands of bears live in Idaho, people seldom see these shy “shadows of the forest” unless they are careless about their garbage or hunt.

Bears, like all wild animals, must share most of their habitat with humans. People enter bear habitat to hike, ride horses, fish, hunt, ski, and snowmobile. They also cut timber, graze cows and sheep, and operate mines in the same forests where bears live.

Biologists and wildlife managers strive to understand how bears use their habitat and how they react to human presence. For example, by studying how bears use logged forests, biologists and managers can recommend logging practices that have less impact on bears. They have learned that bears continue feeding in fields rich with berries if logging ceases during this time. Bears are more likely to return to a logging area if it is small, irregularly shaped and trees are left along streams, roads, and north slopes.

Black bear on road

Wildlife managers also know that bears are better off if logging roads are closed instead of remaining open to provide people with routes to hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking areas. Bears also lose habitat when people build homes along lakes and in forests. As people build, their roads cut off bear travel routes, break up home territories, and destroy natural sources of food. People also provide new sources of food with shrubs and vegetable gardens, bee hives, pet food, and garbage. It should be no surprise that bears sometimes appear on people's property and will take advantage of that easy food. Unfortunately, people often become upset if the bears actually come onto their property. When that happens, wildlife managers will trap the bear and try to move it back into the forest.

Sometimes the bear remains in its new home, but often it returns, traveling as far as 50 miles. If a bear continues to enter private property to find easy food, wildlife managers may have to kill it. They warn property owners that “feeding a bear equals killing a bear.”

Bears are highly intelligent and can learn new behaviors in reaction to a single experience. For example, bears can be trained to stay away from an apiarist's bee hives even after they have discovered this easy source of food. How? The apiarist erects an electric fence around the hives. One brief jolt from the fence and the bear knows the easy food source is gone. Some biologists are experimenting with other types of behavior conditioning to help bears learn to stay away from people's homes and gardens.

black bear mama with cub

Can Idaho's growing human population coexist with bears? Idaho has a healthy black bear population now, but if the population declines, it will be slow to build up again because bears are long-lived, mature late, and produce only one or two cubs every other year. Such a decline won't happen if everyone in Idaho works to ensure that both bears and people can continue to thrive in Idaho.

People can learn how to maintain their houses and yards so there are fewer temptations for bears. People can also learn that the sight of a bear on their property is something to be treasured. Our lives are richer when we share the land with wild creatures, and black bears are one of Idaho's wildest wonders.

Tips For Sharing the Bear's Forests

  • Do not feed bears.
  • Keep home sites free of food and litter.
  • Keep a clean camp.
  • Warn bears of your presence by making noise when traveling in dense cover.
  • Do not get over-confident by trying to get up close to take pictures of bears — they move faster than you, are stronger than you, and are more dangerous than they appear. Be safe!!

Did You Know?

Teddy bear early 1900s - Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
  • The teddy bear was named after President Theodore Roosevelt, who was the subject of a newspaper cartoon. The cartoon, drawn by Clifford Berryman and titled, “Drawing the Line in Mississippi,” showed President Roosevelt refusing to shoot a baby bear.
  • Smokey Bear was an actual baby black bear who was the victim of a forest fire in 1950. He was rescued from his injuries, and because he was orphaned by the fire, became the spokesman, or spokes-bear, for fire prevention.
  • The koala bear is not a bear at all. It is, in fact, a marsupial. It lives in Australia, and although it looks cuddly, it has sharp claws and teeth. While they are not considered dangerous, they are not cuddly.
  • Bears can see very well and in color.
  • A bear sometimes stands upright to see or smell scents carried by the wind, but rarely walks on its hind legs.
  • Black bears can run faster than most humans.

Top 10 Questions

March 2013: Thanks to Evin Oneale and Gregg Losinski, both Regional Conservation Educators with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game for the answers.

  1. Why do bears hibernate?

    Bears hibernate because they have to. The food sources that are normally available in the summer generally aren't there in the winter, so rather than use the energy that they have remaining to find something, they basically shut down. Bears are not true hibernators. They drop their body temperature and metabolism, but they can start up if and when they need to. (From Abby at Kamiah Elementary School in Kamiah)

  2. How tall can a grizzly bear get?

    A big grizzly bear might be about five feet at the shoulder when it's on all fours. When it stands up, it might be around nine feet tall. Bears spend most of their time on all fours and a really, really big grizzly could be about six feet tall on all fours. (From Reid at Cynthia Mann Elementary School in Boise)

  3. How fast can bears walk?

    It depends on what they are walking to or from. They can have a normal pace, like a human, of a few miles per hour, or they can step up that pace and move much more quickly to the point where they can hit 35 miles per hour. It just depends on what they are trying to do. If they are just looking for food, they are going to move more slowly; and if they are trying to get somewhere or get something fast, they can move much more quickly. (From Kristia at Basin Elementary School in Idaho City)

  4. What is the most common bear in Idaho?

    Easily, the black bear is our most common bear. (From Jazmin at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)

  5. How long do bears live?

    Bears in the wild generally live around 25 years. The grizzly bear lives a little less, usually around 20 years. All bears live a little longer if they live in a zoo. (From Vinnie at Basin Elementary School in Idaho City)

  6. Do bears shed their fur?

    When winter is coming, bears will put on weight, but their fur doesn't actually bulk up as much as it does with other animals that spend the winter out. So, when you see a bear in the spring, he's going to have a shaggy coat, but not a big winter coat. Bears do, however, slough the pads off their paws. They will lick their paws allowing the dead skin to fall off. (From Raquel at Kamiah Elementary School in Kamiah)

  7. Why are female bears called sows?

    Bears are actually related to pigs. Male bears are called boars and females are called sows, just like pigs. (From Isaac at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)

  8. Why do bears leave people alone when they are hiking in the woods?

    Bears understand that humans can be trouble. When they know a person is around, they will try to get away from that area. The problem occurs when people surprise bears or they aren't aware that the people are in the area. Then, all of a sudden, it becomes a close encounter. Generally, bears don't want trouble, and they know that people could mean trouble, so they try to avoid us. That's why it's important to make plenty of noise so the bears will know you are there and will move on. (From Rebecca at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)

  9. How much do bears eat each day?

    It depends on what's available. Bears are consumed with consuming. If there is something that is edible, bears will eat it until it is gone. They aren't picky and eat a lot of different things. If there is only a little available, they will eat it. If they have a chance to eat a whole carcass of an animal, they will do so. They will eat whatever is available. (From Millie at Basin Elementary School in Idaho City)

  10. Why are some bears more aggressive than others?

    Black bears and grizzly bears came about from different locations. Grizzly bears are more of an open plains animal. They are not really a forest dwelling animal, though they do live in forests. They have a different attitude about life. Their best defense is a good offense, so they tend to be more aggressive toward humans and other animals than black bears. Black bears spend most of their time in the forest, and the forest is a great place to retreat to. Black bears tend to be less aggressive than grizzly bears and the black bears' best defense is good defense. If they feel threatened, they will run in the woods and climb a tree. Grizzly bears don't have that option as they are not great tree climbers so they are more aggressive and are more apt to charge. (From Junior at Riverside Elementary School in Boise)