The black bear is the smallest of the three North American bear species. Adult females seldom reach 300 pounds, but males weighing over 700 pounds have been recorded. Bears in Arkansas are heavier than most. Males seven years of age or older usually exceed 400 pounds.
Bears have poor eyesight but have an extraordinary sense of smell and are one of Arkansas' most intelligent mammals.
The short-term outlook for Arkansas' black bears is bright. Bears have been restored and are increasing in many parts of the state. With proper management, the bear population in Arkansas has the potential to someday sustain harvests many times the current level. However, the long-term future of this animal is uncertain because of the threat of habitat destruction.
The black bear was once one of the most widely distributed mammals in North America, but today it is absent from many interior regions of the continent. Bears were extirpated in western Arkansas but successfully reintroduced in the 1950s and 1960s.
Bears breed during the summer months, and males cover large areas searching for females. Young are born in the winter den. Bear cubs are relatively undeveloped and small at birth, being only about eight inches in length. Two is the average litter size, but three are more common than one.
Mother and cubs emerge from the den by mid-May, and the cubs begin learning about life in the wild. These cubs will again den with their mother the following winter and stay with her until the next summer when she finally drives them away. Females produce a litter of cubs only once every two years because of the care the young require.
Winter denning is a fascinating aspect of bear biology. When black bears den, their heart and respiration rates decrease markedly. But unlike the "true hibernators," body temperature does not decrease drastically. This enables bears to rouse quickly from their winter sleep and occasionally make short ventures from dens on warm winter days.
Arkansas bears start searching for dens in early October, and most have denned by late December. Bears den in rock crevices, excavated burrows and cavities in standing trees. Tree cavity dens may be as high as 60 feet.
Bear Feeding Habits
Little food is available after bears emerge from their dens in spring. They lose weight during this period until later in the summer when blackberries, pokeberries and blueberries ripen. During autumn, bears feed heavily on fat-rich acorns and hickory nuts and commonly gain 100 pounds or more during this short time. This extra fat readies them for the rigors of winter denning. Consequently, acorn and other nut crops are vital for bears.
Black bears have large canine teeth typical of meat eaters, but their diet is mostly fruit, berries and nuts, with the majority of their "meat" being insects. When natural foods are scarce (usually in early summer), they may overcome their fear of people and seek food around human habitations.