Tips on Tracks: Black bear

Name of animal: Black Bear (Ursus americanus).



General description of the track: Both the front and rear paws have five toes with claws that extend less than an inch and a half. While walking, the larger rear paw lands beyond the front paw.


Where and when to look: Black bears emerge from their winter dens when food becomes available, usually in relation to spring snowmelt in April or May. In the fall they den when food becomes scarce, usually near the end of October. In the spring look for black bears on south-facing avalanche slopes where the snow disappears quickly, foraging for roots and tender shoots, or in the salt marshes eating newly emergent sedges.*


Lookalikes, and how to tell them apart: Black bears’ toe prints usually have spaces between them, and line up in a crescent shape. Their claws are shorter and more strongly curved (better suited for climbing) than those of a brown bear. Brown bears’ toe prints are closer together than black bears’ and line up in a near-straight line; their claws are longer and straighter (better for digging). Color, however, is not a good distinguisher between the two types of bear. There are black brown bears and brown black bears. To identify a black bear look for a straight or slightly “Roman-nosed” facial profile and a flat shoulder profile. A brown bear has a more dish-shaped facial profile and a prominent shoulder hump.


More about the black bear: Contrary to popular belief, black bears are not true hibernators. Although their metabolism slows and they do not eat, urinate, or defecate while in the den, they maintain a high body temperature. True hibernators such as the marmot drop their body temperatures by almost half. Black bears mate between May and July, and one to four cubs weighing about a pound each are born midwinter to the sleeping mother.* Typically, brown and black bear populations do not overlap.


*The Nature of Southeast Alaska, by O’Clair, Armstrong and Carstensen.

• This tracks feature appears every other week during winter months and is compiled by members of Discovery Southeast, a local nonprofit offering a variety of programs for local youth aimed at educating and engaging students in their outdoor world. For more information on the organization, go online to


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