Curious, intelligent, and opportunistic, the American black bear (Ursus americanus) ranges throughout Colorado’s mountains, forests, and riparian areas. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) estimates there to be around 17,000–20,000 black bears in the state, many of which inhabit areas where people live and recreate. Black bears generally pose little threat to humans and in fact play important cultural and economic roles for people in Colorado. However, some bears develop problematic behavior around people that leads authorities to remove or kill them, meaning that human responsibility is an essential part of managing Colorado’s black bear population.
The American black bear is a close relative of the Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus). Ancestors of the black bear may have migrated to North America and evolved into the American black bear we know today, which now consists of sixteen subspecies. The black bear can be found in more than forty US states, ranging from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountain West.
Despite the “black bear” name, the bears come in many different shades of fur, including brown, white, and blond, depending on the region they inhabit. In Colorado and other parts of the West, they are commonly brown. A brown or cinnamon black bear is not to be confused with the larger brown bear (Ursus arctos), or grizzly bear, which no longer lives in Colorado.
Black bears can live up to thirty years. One of the smallest American bears, black bears are nevertheless Colorado’s largest mammal, with males weighing up to 600 pounds and females weighing up to 200 pounds. Black bears are typically about five feet tall when standing up on their back legs and about three feet long when walking on all fours.
Habitat and Ecology
Black bears inhabit virtually every forested area in Colorado, including riverside cottonwood groves in otherwise treeless areas such as the San Luis Valley and Great Plains. They spend the winter months in hibernation, a state of depressed metabolism in which a bear sleeps in a den (prime locations include under logs and the bases of hollow trees, as well as caves) and does not feed. They emerge in the spring to mate and raise their cubs before entering a stage of hyperphagia—intensive foraging—in the summer and fall.
Black bears are omnivorous, meaning they will eat both meat and plants. Their diet varies with seasonal availability but typically consists mostly of acorns, berries, nuts, grasses, and other vegetation. They will also eat insects, small mammals, ungulates such as deer and elk, and human trash. One study of black bear diets in Rocky Mountain National Park found that grasses made up 28 percent of a bear’s diet, while berries and ants each made up 16 percent; ungulates accounted for another 6 percent and small mammals 4 percent. Five percent of bear diets in the study consisted of trash, an indication of how park bears have come to rely on human visitors.
History and Culture
Black bears hold an important place in the spirituality of the Nuche, or Ute people of Colorado. In Ute culture, bears are viewed as the wisest animal and one of the bravest (second only to the mountain lion). The Nuche believe that bears are aware of their relationship with humans, and they hold Bear Dances to strengthen this natural bond with the animal. Ute oral tradition says that long ago a bear gifted the Bear Dance to the Nuche.
In Anglo- and Euro-American Colorado, black bears have historically been viewed as hunting trophies or threats to livestock and wildlife tourism. One of the earliest accounts of a black bear sighting, from Middle Park in 1863, described a man running into a river in pursuit of one. Another article from 1870 encouraged “settlers” to “engage in the manly sport of hunting” black bears that foraged in “the refuse of their kitchens.”
By the twentieth century, as ranching became more prominent across Colorado’s mountains, bears were also hunted as threats to livestock. To protect cattle and sheep, government hunters were dispatched to kill predators, including bears, all over the state. As late as 1941, Governor Ralph L. Carr allowed “ranchers and farmers to shoot without license and out of season any bear which is molesting livestock or causing any other sort of damage.” Bears were also considered a threat to other animals that drew tourists. After the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915, federal agents “greatly reduced” the park’s population of grizzly and black bears, as well as other predators, to boost elk numbers.
Along with other predators, black bears were hunted relentlessly all over the country before their dwindling numbers in the mid-twentieth century prompted concern from newly established state and federal wildlife agencies. A US Forest Service report from 1940 estimated Colorado’s combined black and brown bear population to be around 4,900, which indicated “an increase in the number of black bear.” Grizzly bears were hunted to extinction in Colorado by 1951.
Black bears are opportunistic foragers who will do whatever it takes to get a meal. This often brings them into contact with people, whom bears recognize as a potential source of food. Human-bear interactions have increased with Colorado’s population. In 2020 there were more than 1,800 reported black bear encounters in Colorado, mostly after June 1, when bears become more active and more people visit the mountains. Unattended food and beverages at campsites or cabins are prime targets for bears, but they will also rummage through trash and occasionally break into cars and houses in search of food. Bears also associate a wide range of nonfood smells with people (and thus food), including soaps and other toiletries; even beer and water bottles, if used while eating, can attract bears.
Unlike their more aggressive cousins the grizzlies, black bears are notoriously skittish when they come into direct contact with humans. Many encounters end with the bear running away. However, if a bear is surprised, threatened, or protecting cubs, it may attack. In 2019, for instance, there were three bear attacks on people near Aspen, all of which were outdoors. Fatal attacks are rare; Colorado’s most recent fatal attack was in 2009. State wildlife managers maintain that removing things that attract bears to campsites or neighborhoods is more effective at mitigating human-bear conflict than removing or killing bears.
Numerous state and federal laws protect black bears. In 1992 Colorado residents approved a ballot initiative that eliminated bear hunting in spring and prohibited capturing bears using bait and dogs. It remains legal to hunt black bears in Colorado with a license, in-season. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) manages bear populations by selling a fluctuating number of hunting licenses per season. Hunters can check CPW’s website for additional information.