Black Bears

black bear cub

Though called the American Black Bear, like Fords and Chevys, they come in a wide variety of colors.

We rented a side by side and invited my sister and my wife’s brother, who happen to be married, for a ride in Island Park. After a lunch on top of Bishop Mountain, we headed back down the rough road. Not far into our journey, a black bear jumped onto the road and raced ahead of us, furry butt shaking like a tambourine. Our encounter didn’t last long as the bear made a quick exit from the road and disappeared into the brush. I was amazed at our luck though, as we have only seen a dozen black bears since moving to Island Park over four years ago.

When it comes to bears, grizzlies usually garner all the attention. Grizzlies are fascinating, but it is usually grizzlies behaving badly that keeps them in the spotlight. The most recent tragic double fatality of a couple hiking in Banff National Park in Canada is an example. Black bears are just as captivating though and far less temperamental and deserve more respect.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “There are eight species of bears: the American black bear, the Asiatic black bear, the brown (grizzly) bear, the giant panda, the polar bear, the sloth bear, the spectacled bear, and the sun bear.”

Of these, only three are native to North America: polar bear, grizzly bear, and American black bear with the black bear being the smallest on average. However, that is not always the case. Just as the coastal brown or grizzly bear is a larger beast than interior grizzlies because of a diet rich in protein (salmon), there are black bears that are substantially larger than average, even larger than the majority of Rocky Mountain grizzly bears (even the male grizzlies which average around 300 pounds with behemoths tipping the scales at 600 pounds).

Wikipedia reports, “The biggest wild American black bear ever recorded was a male from New Brunswick, shot in November 1972, that weighed 409 kg (902 lb.) after it had been dressed, meaning it weighed an estimated 500 kg (1,100 lb.) in life and measured 2.41 m (7 ft 11 in) long.” I’m not sure I trust the source on this though. However, hunters in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Minnesota have all harvested black bears from 800 to 880 pounds. Pennsylvania has had at least six bears over 800 pounds in the last 20 years. One captive black bear, Duke, weighed 812 pounds and stood nearly eight feet tall when he died this year. These bears all lived in areas where acorns and other foods are plentiful and the gathering season is longer, allowing them to grow to astounding proportions. We won’t see bears like that in the West where a 300 pounder would be a large black bear.

It should be common knowledge that all black bears are not black. The most obvious exception is the nearly white (more like a dirty blonde to my eye) Kermode bear. This subspecies is not albino and is only found on Gribbell and Princess Royal islands of British Columbia. Also called the spirit bear, these bears make up about 30 percent of the bears on these islands.

Beyond that, black bears come in black, light brown, reddish brown, dark brown, and even silvery-gray in some places. It is interesting that in wetter climates such as the coasts and around the Great Lakes, the black phase predominates. In Rocky Mountain states, only about 50 percent of American black bears are black. The rest are a mix of colors and some distinctly resemble their larger cousins, grizzly bears.

Although we like to talk about weight and height as the measure of a bear, hunters don’t judge a trophy bear of any species by either method. Boone and Crockett Club official trophy scoring depends upon length and width measurements taken from the skull after it has dried (shrunk) for a specified number of days.

American black bears are amazing animals. With a sense of smell reported to be seven times that of a domestic dog, they explore the world quite differently than humans. Some males have territories as large as 1,000 square miles and, unlike grizzly bears, black bears readily climb trees. They are clever and resourceful, and like me, they are always on a “seefood” diet. When they see food, they eat it.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho