Black Bear

Black bear in tree
Black Bear sniffing berries
Black Bear in Trash Bin
Bear running with fish
Black Bear in MRI

CDFW strives to ensure viable black bear (Ursus americanus) populations persist throughout the state where suitable habitat and other environmental conditions allow. Black bears provide many ecosystem services and are an important part of California's unique biodiversity. CDFW's Black Bear Program was established to coordinate scientific research and population monitoring, and to inform big game management, species management, and habitat conservation plans for black bears.

Conservation Plan Update

The public comment period for the Draft Black Bear Conservation Plan for California(opens in new tab) ended on June 14, 2024. The Plan is now being revised and will be published by the end of the year.

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    Conservation

    The general wildlife conservation policy of the State is to encourage the conservation and maintenance of wildlife resources under the jurisdiction and influence of the State (Section 1801, Fish and Wildlife Code). The policy encompasses black bear conservation and includes several objectives, such as:

    • To provide for the beneficial use and enjoyment of wildlife by all citizens of the State;
    • To perpetuate all species of wildlife for their intrinsic and ecological values, as well as for their direct benefits to man;
    • To provide for aesthetic, educational, and non-appropriative uses of the various wildlife species;
    • To maintain diversified recreational uses of wildlife, including hunting, as proper uses of certain designated species of wildlife, subject to regulations consistent with public safety, and a quality outdoor experience;
    • To provide for economic contributions to the citizens of the State through the recognition that wildlife is a renewable resource of the land by which economic return can accrue to the citizens of the State, individually and collectively, through regulated management. Such management shall be consistent with the maintenance of healthy and thriving wildlife resources and the public ownership status of the wildlife resource;
    • To alleviate economic losses or public health and safety problems caused by wildlife; and
    • To maintain sufficient populations of all species of wildlife and the habitat necessary to achieve the above stated objectives.

    Specific to black bears, the Draft Black Bear Conservation Plan for California defines two main goals:

    1. To conserve black bear populations that are abundant, disease-resilient, genetically diverse statewide and regionally, and conserve and enhance their habitats; and
    2. To provide opportunities for black bear hunting, viewing, and public education; minimize human-black bear conflict; consider animal welfare in black bear conservation; and be inclusive of all Californians in black bear conservation decisions.

    Biology and Behavior

    Appearance

    Black bears are powerfully built large carnivores. Though they are the smallest of North America’s three bear species, they are the third largest of the world’s eight bear species. Despite their name, they can vary in color considerably, from off-white to cinnamon to tan to brown to black. Not uncommonly, black bears have pale chest patches which may vary considerably in size and shape.

    • Adult females (sows) typically weigh 100 - 300 pounds. Adult males (boars) typically weigh 150 - 400 pounds, with some males weighing upwards of 500 pounds. Black bears that have access to anthropogenic food often weigh more than those in wildland environments.
    • Black bears have powerful limbs and well-developed claws on large, strong paws. They can stand and even walk upright for short distances, and their forelimbs are highly dexterous and nimble.
    • Black bears are excellent climbers able to quickly scale trees to avoid unwanted interactions with other animals or humans, though their arboreal abilities tend to decline with age.

    Diet

    Black bears are highly flexible omnivores, with teeth adapted for feeding on both plant and animal matter. They are opportunistic and will eat nearly anything edible, including but not limited to:

    • Wild plant matter, such as berries, acorns, leaves, tree sap, roots, grasses, and forbs.
    • Wild animal matter, such as carrion, deer fawns, birds, eggs, and insects.
    • Anthropogenic food, such as garbage, crops, offal, pet food, candy, scented lotions, honey, and domestic animals.

    Reproduction

    Black bears mate from June-August. Reproductive success in sows is related to food availability. Sows generally breed every other year and usually produce 1-4 cubs per litter.

    • Sows experience the phenomenon of “delayed implantation”: although they mate in the summer, the blastocyst’s development is suspended until November-December which is when “true pregnancy” begins, and the fetus attaches and develops.
    • If a sow has not accumulated enough body fat prior to hibernation, the fetus will spontaneously abort.
    • Cubs are born in January-February and weigh less than a pound at birth. Sows emerge from the den in March-May with their cubs weighing 5-7 pounds.

    Body Language

    Black bears are highly expressive and use their body and a range of facial expressions and sounds to communicate.

    • Agitated bears will snarl, open and close their mouths rapidly while salivating, baring their teeth, and make clacking/popping sounds with their jaws.
    • A bear walking with its head held below its shoulders may indicate aggression.
    • A bear may bluff charge by running at full speed at a perceived threat before stopping just short in order to provide a signal for the intruder to immediately leave the area.

    Hibernation

    Black bears are highly efficient hibernators. They generally enter their dens (which may be under fallen logs, in vegetation thickets, high up trees, in crevices, or even under decks and patios) from October-December and will remain there from a few weeks to several months depending on local climate and other conditions.

    • A bear's heart and metabolic rates will drop significantly during hibernation and it will lose 25-40% of its body weight during this time
    • Bears emerge from their dens in the spring, usually between March-May.
    • Adult males tend to enter their dens the latest and emerge the earliest. Adult females tend to enter their dens the earliest and emerge the latest, particularly those with cubs of the year.
    • Bears retain all excretory waste during hibernation, which may play a role in the relatively slow rates of bone mineral and muscle loss they experience during winter months relative to other animals.

    Matrilineal Learning

    Black bear cubs are generally weaned at an age of 6-8 months, but stay with their mother for about 1.5 years. Cubs will follow their mother everywhere she goes, learning from everything she does, including how and where to find food, what food sources are safe, what is dangerous and to be avoided. Unruly cubs are often disciplined by their mother's growling, grunting, and swats. Mothers may carry their cubs in difficult or steep terrain when they are small. Upon independence, cubs will disperse to find new home ranges to settle in.


    Habitat, Range and Population

    Black bears are distributed throughout much of California. They occupy a variety of habitats, including forests, grasslands, deserts, and the urban-wildland interface. Wildland populations are densest in montane hardwood, montane chaparral, and mixed conifer forests with a wide variety of seral stages that offer both vegetative and structural diversity and diverse food sources. High densities may also be attained in urban areas with unsecured attractants.

    The state’s densest and most abundant black bear populations live in the North Coast and Cascade regions, which together are home to about 50% California’s black bears. Another 40% of California’s black bears are in the Sierra Nevada at slightly lower densities. The remainder occurs at much lower densities in other areas such as the Central Coast and South Coast.

    California's black bear population size has been stable for the past decade. Presently, the statewide black bear population size is estimated to be between 50,000-81,000.


    Hunting

    Black bears are legally designated as game mammals in California. Bear hunting follows a regulated process that includes obtaining a tag and restricting hunting to a specified season.


    Human-Black Bear Conflict

    Human-black bear conflict is reported in urban, rural, and mountain communities through much of California. As communities expand into wildland areas, increasingly reported interactions between people and black bears have resulted in increased calls for assistance from the public. Many factors can lead to potential conflict due to increased attractants and competition for resources. CDFW receives thousands of black bear sighting reports each year. Many reports describe concerns of human-bear interactions escalating to property damage or conflict. Most reports are resolved by providing species information and/or technical assistance. Few sightings result in a black bear being identified as an imminent threat to public safety.

    Black bears are highly food-motivated, particularly during hyperphagia. It is thus natural for a bear to investigate all attractive smells and consume whatever seems like food. The best way to prevent conflict is to eliminate the attractant. If a black bear becomes habituated to humans or food conditioned, they may become increasingly bold or destructive. Cubs that are conditioned to food by their mothers will also grow up to become conflict adults, continuing the cycle of conflict across generations. Property owners and tenants should thus take reasonable corrective measures such as: removal of food attractants, eliminating access to food attractants (e.g., bear-proof containers), electric fencing, and electric mats.

    A person knowingly feeding a black bear could be subject to criminal penalties pursuant to California Code of Regulations, Title 14, § 251.3.

    To report an incident or sighting involving a black bear, use CDFW's Wildlife Incident Reporting System.

    Depredation

    Fish and Game Code § 4181 and California Code of Regulations, Title 14, § 401 provide for the issuance of a revocable depredation permit to any owner or tenant of land or property that is being damaged or destroyed or is in danger of being damaged or destroyed by specific animals, including black bears, as determined by CDFW staff. This ability has existed for all Californians since 1957. 

    A permit shall be issued by CDFW only upon satisfactory evidence of the damage or destruction. The Department may, at its discretion, add terms and conditions to the permit necessary to protect wildlife and ensure public safety. All details on CDFW policy related to black bear depredation permits and human-black bear conflict can be found here: Black Bear Policy in California: Public Safety, Depredation, Conflict, and Animal Welfare (2022) (PDF).

    A summary of recent black bear depredation permit data is available here: Black Bear Depredation Summary Statistics (PDF).


    Wildlife Branch - Game Program
    1010 Riverside Parkway, West Sacramento, CA 95605
    Mailing: P.O. Box 944209, Sacramento, CA 94244-2090
    (916) 557-3444