Photo: Land Trust.

The Nature of Central Oregon: Black Bears

Feb 06, 2020 by Peter Cooper
Black bears are an integral part of nature in Central Oregon. Get to know these beautiful but often misunderstood creatures.

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“When a pine needle falls in the forest, the eagle sees it; the deer hears it, and the bear smells it.” – First Nations saying

Prior to Euro-American settlement, Oregon was home to two different species of bear--the Black Bear (Ursus americanus) and its infamous big brother, the Grizzly Bear. However, by the early 20th century the last remaining grizzlies in Oregon were either killed or retreated to more secluded habitats in other states, leaving Oregon with the black bear as its only species of the Ursidae family. It should be noted that the name black bear can sometimes be misleading, as various genetic and environmental circumstances can yield black bears that are actually brown, blonde, or even white. There have been a few instances where people hastily mistake brown-colored black bears for a grizzly, despite the stark difference in their size. 

Recent data from the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife indicate that there are approximately 25,000-30,000 black bears living in Oregon today--primarily in the Coast, Cascade, and Blue Mountain Ranges (ODFW). The preferred habitat for black bears is relatively undisturbed forestland, where they can utilize their exceptional athletic prowess to climb trees, swim in streams, and run around to new territories foraging for food, while taking advantage of the shelter and shading amenities that forests provide.

A black bear forages for food. Photo: Land Trust.
A black bear forages for food. Photo: Land Trust.
During the warmer months, black bears satiate their omnivorous diet with a variety of foods ranging from nuts, berries, herbaceous plants, and insects, to the occasional fish, small mammal, or carrion. A common misconception with bears is the assumption that they are ruthless bloodthirsty predators, when in fact a significant portion of their diet comes from plant-based foods. Like most other bear species, black bears try to build up their fat reserves in the late summer and fall so they can eventually stumble their lethargic bodies into a den where they wait out the cold winter months. During these times of gorging, black bears can eat upwards of 20,000 calories a day. Unlike true hibernating animals, black bears can be roused from their slumber during the winter, but they still experience a drop in heart rate, body temperature, and breathing. In areas with mild winters, the hibernating season is shorter, or in some cases nonexistent. Black bear cubs are typically born during the denning season and will stay with their mother until the following spring (about 18 months), at which point the cubs are expected to be able to fend for themselves. 

If you have ever been out for a hike at the Metolius Preserve near Camp Sherman, you were walking in an area that is well suited for black bears. Since black bears roam large areas on their quest for mates and food, the Metolius Preserve is only a fraction of the territorial space these animals occupy and need to thrive. The Land Trust has documented black bear sightings over the years with wildlife cameras located at various Community Preserves. 

With the ongoing encroachment of human activity into the natural habitat of black bears, interactions between man and bear are not uncommon. Considering that bears have an outstanding sense of smell, they are often drawn to the odors emanating from garbage bins, campgrounds, and other human infrastructure. If a black bear has continued success dumpster diving, it is more than likely to habituate itself to these conditions and become a potential nuisance or danger to humans. Land that is used for timber production can also lead to conflicts with black bears as they can damage tree saplings by clawing away the bark to access sugar laden sapwoods. 

Black bear populations in Oregon and across North America are considered to be stable and they are not currently listed as threatened or endangered. Stricter hunting regulations and the promotion of nonlethal methods to deal with nuisance bears are key initiatives that help keep populations healthy. However, looking at data comparing the historical and current range of black bears, it is clear that the loss and fragmentation of their habitat is the most pressing issue facing the species today. 

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