Improving Black Bear Habitat With Mast-Producing Trees

Improving Black Bear Habitat With Mast-Producing Trees

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Black bears (Ursus americanus) are the smallest and most common of the three bear species native to North America. Black bears are omniovorous and will eat almost anything, a fact which has often gotten them into trouble when they become accustomed to food provided by humans in the form of garbage, bird food, and even deliberate handouts. “A fed bear is a dead bear,” and bears that lose their fear of humans are generally shot to prevent them from becoming serious problems.

Improving black bear habitat and increasing natural food sources in wilderness areas, woodlots, and other areas far from homes, businesses, and other areas frequented by humans can reduce the probability that bears will resort to foraging in garbage cans and other inappropriate places. One of the best ways to do this is by planting mast-producing trees.

Food Sources

Hard and soft mast are the most important food sources for black bears in summer and autumn and are a major supplement to their diet throughout the year.

In summer, black bears favor soft mast species such as blueberries, blackberries, pawpaws, serviceberries, grapes, and viburnums.

In autumn, hard mast such as acorns, beechnuts, hazelnuts, black walnuts, and hickory nuts are the favored foods of black bears. They supplement these with soft mast such as dogwood berries, persimmons, wild cherries, crabapples, and more. Bears also enjoy pine nuts, especially in the West.

Mast producing trees can also be an important food source in spring, when buds and catkins are among the foods eaten by bears emerging from hibernation.

Habitat Management

Black bears readily use riparian buffer strips, hedgerows, and other wildlife corridors to travel between areas of fragmented habitat, but their preferred habitat is extensive and relatively undisturbed mature hardwood or mixed conifer forests with a dense understory of fruiting shrubs and understory trees.Landowners can manage woodlots and other forest stands to improve bear habitat by thinning undesirable trees, releasing mature mast-producing trees, and encouraging dense understory growth of mast-producing trees and shrubs.

Woodlots should be managed for long rotations (60 years or more) and harvested in small sections, or managed by selective cutting. Retain some snags, trees with large cavities, and rotting logs, as these provide den sites and good sources of insect food. If possible, avoid harvesting bottomland hardwood stands and swamps, another favorite habitat for black bears.

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