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Montana Field Guides

American Black Bear - Ursus americanus

Native Species

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S5

Agency Status


External Links

General Description
Coat black (often with white on chest), brown or blond; slight shoulder hump, but highest point of body above hips; muzzle straight and long in profile; claws of front feet dark, strongly curved, and shorter (seldom more than 1 1/2 inches) than those of Grizzly Bear; males weigh 180-250 lbs., occasionally up to 400 lbs.; females weigh 120-180 lbs. Largly nocturnal; usually solitary; dig less elaborate dens than Grizzly Bears, often in natural cavities (trees, rocks), under logs, brush piles, or even buildings; climb trees easily (MTFWP 1992). Pelage color varies, usually black in the eastern U.S., black, brown, cinnamon, blue-black, or whitish in western North America; snout brown, straight in profile; small rounded ears; five toes on both front and rear feet; head and body length 150-180 cm, tail about 12 cm, mass about 90-140 kg for females, 115-270 kg for males (Burt and Grossenheider 1964, and Nowak 1991).

Diagnostic Characteristics
Differs from the Grizzly Bear in having the claws of the forefeet only a little longer than those on the hind feet (about twice as long in the Grizzly Bear), length of second upper molar less than 29.5 mm (in part of range where Grizzly Bear occurs), snout profile straight rather than dished, and in lacking a prominent hump at the shoulders; maximum size of American Black Bear is less than that of the Grizzly Bear (170-280 cm head and body length) (Hall 1981 and Nowak 1991).

Species Range
Montana Range


Western Hemisphere Range


Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 2023

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density



(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Non-migratory, but American Black Bears sometimes exhibit long distance movements.

Dense forests; riparian areas; open slopes or avalanche chutes during spring green-up (MTFWP 1992). Habitat use tied to seasonal food availability/plant phenology. Dry mountain meadows in early spring; snow slides, stream bottoms, wet meadows in early and mid-summer. May concentrate in berry and whitebark pine areas in fall (Tisch 1961, Barnes and Bray 1967, and Jonkel and Cowan 1971).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Grasses, sedges, berries, fruits, inner bark of trees, insects, honey, eggs, carrion, rodents, occassional ungulates (especially young and domestic), and (where available) garbage (MTFWP 1992). Diet varies: Spring - primarily vegetation (grasses, umbels, and horsetails); summer - herbaceous and fruits; fall - berries, nuts, and some vegetation. Insects a frequent component of diet. Also mammals, birds, and carrion (usually minor) (Tisch 1961).

Sympatric with Grizzly Bear but more prone to occupying closed canopy areas. Natural cub and adult mortality low, sub-adult mortality higher (Jonkel and Cowan 1971). American Black Bears sometimes involved in various crop/property depredations.

Reproductive Characteristics
Similar to Grizzly Bear, except females often first breed at 2 1/2 or 3 1/2 years of age; in very poor habitat, may not breed until 6 1/2 (MTFWP 1992). Estrus May 25 to August 10; peak in June. In NW MT first estrus at 4.5 years, often no litter until 6.5 years old. Average litter size 1.5 to 1.8 young/female. Litters every 2 to 3 years. Reproductive rates may be tied to softmast availability (Jonkel and Cowan 1971).

For information on living with bears and avoiding conflict see the Bear Smart Society's website

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Barnes, V.G. and O.E. Bray. 1967. Population characteristics and activities of black bears in Yellowstone National Park. Co. Coop. Wildl. Research Unit, Ft. Collins, CO. 199 pp.
    • Burt, W.H. and R.P. Grossenheider. 1964. A field guide to the mammals. Houghton Mifflin Co.
    • Jonkel, C.J. and I.T. McCowan. 1971. The black bear in the spruce-fir forest. Wildl. Monogr. 27 :1-57.
    • Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. 1947-1992. Annual black bear hunting and harvest statistics. Helena.
    • Nowak, R.M. 1991. Walker's mammals of the world. Fifth edition. Volumes I and II. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. 1629 pp.
    • Tisch, E.L. 1961. Seasonal food habits of the black bear in the Whitefish Range of northwestern Montana. M.S. thesis. University of Montana, Missoula. 108 pp.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
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American Black Bear — Ursus americanus.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from