Black bears inhabit the extensive forest lands of northern New York, particularly those within the Adirondack Park. The Adirondack region is "home" to a healthy population of nearly 4,000 black bears. Until the arrival of a few moose in recent years, black bears were the largest New York mammal, with some adult males weighing in excess of 600 pounds.
Bears have been described as "big, black eating machines" because foraging for food is a near constant activity except in winter. Adequate food resources are important for growth, reproduction, and building fat reserves for winter survival in their den.
Adirondack black bears eat a wide variety of foods. Approximately 90 percent of their diet is plant material consisting of not less than 30 different plant species. The remainder is primarily insects, but bears also will scavenge carcasses of larger animals, and, if the opportunity arises, prey upon live white-tailed deer fawns, small woodland mammals, and beaver.
Bears are very well adapted for finding and gathering food. They have a keen sense of smell, powerful "forearms," long claws, tremendous endurance, and are adept with their tongue and paws. As a result, black bears can "dig out" plant tubers or small rodents, tear apart rotten logs to find grubs, climb trees and break off branches to gather nuts, "pick" raspberries and blueberries, and travel long distances in search of new food resources.
In spite of their large size and tremendous strength, most items bears eat are small, and as a result a bear has to eat a lot at one "sitting." It is not uncommon for bears to gorge themselves on a particular berry species for several days, or even weeks, eating virtually nothing else before moving on to another location or a different food resource. Although generally solitary animals (except for females with young), several bears may congregate in a localized area of high food abundance for short periods of time.
Black bears are very much "in tune" with their surroundings. Seasonal changes in the plant community result in varied food availability for bears. When bears emerge from their winter dens in early April, it takes a couple of weeks for their digestive system to "start up" again after being "shutdown" all winter. Food is scarce in spring; there are no ripe berries or nuts as yet. The first "green" vegetation to appear on the forested landscape includes tender young shoots and leaves, aspen catkins, succulent grasses and fern fiddleheads. As summer arrives, wild strawberries and juneberries, along with lush vegetation constitute the bulk of bears' diet. In July, pin cherries, sarsaparilla berries, and blueberries become available. Later on in summer, red raspberries (a key fruit species for bears), choke cherries, dogwood fruits and blackberries ripen. In September, American mountain-ash berries, black cherries, mountain holly fruits, and hazelnuts are sought out by bears. In mid to late fall beechnuts, and in some areas acorns, are key food resources along with wild apple, and the fruits of the viburnums, particularly arrowwood and wild raisin.
By mid-November food resources are becoming scarce and Adirondack black bears, now "fattened" for winter, begin to seek out a favorable den site. Feeding activity has nearly ceased and the bears' metabolic rate begins to slow in preparation for winter "hibernation." Pregnant females are usually the first to enter their dens, followed by barren females and then males. By Thanksgiving most Adirondack black bears are secure in their dens "waiting out" the long winter.
Food abundance and diversity is a critical part of Adirondack black bear habitat. Food availability also plays a key role in population dynamics. Lack of adequate food resources has been shown to have a direct negative effect on female reproductive rates, age of maturity, survival of young, and growth in black bears. Indirectly, food resource limitations in the wild can lead to increased bear/human interactions. Some hungry bears will seek out landfills, garbage cans, or public campsites as alternative sources of food. Many humans are intolerant of bears around their homes or camps, and the bear is usually the loser in any confrontation. Feeding bears acclimates them towards humans and their surroundings, increasing the potential of "nuisance bear" problems. Removal of excessive numbers of nuisance bears can have a negative impact on the population.
Food Availability on Managed and Unmanaged Forest Land Within the Park
Varying stand age and lighting conditions are key factors affecting bear food abundance in the forests of the Adirondack region. New Yorkers are fortunate to have two contrasting forested landscapes in the Adirondack Park which together provide growing conditions necessary to support the wide variety of food resources important to black bears.
Public lands within the Park, protected under the state constitution from development and timber harvesting, often support mature forests dominated by shade tolerant species such as beech. Large mature trees provide abundant fruit/nut crops. Overmature and fallen trees harbor insects and small mammals.
In contrast, a large segment of the privately-owned land within the Adirondack Park is actively managed for timber production and/or a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities. The paper and wood products from New York's forest lands are used by all of us on a daily basis. Timber harvesting results in the periodic removal of trees from forest stands according to a prescribed management plan designed to perpetuate production on a sustained basis. Such harvesting creates openings in the forest canopy which encourages growth of light-loving plant species, such as raspberry, blackberry, pin cherry, aspen, scarlet elder, and black cherry as well as a variety of shade tolerant plants and trees. Well-planned timber management programs result in a variety of tree age classes ranging from young seedlings and saplings to mature trees. Furthermore, such practices promote the establishment and development of a diverse plant community which includes intolerant, mid-tolerant and shade tolerant woody and herbaceous plants.
Research conducted by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry on black bear food habits, and habitat use in the central Adirondacks has shown that raspberry abundance is 48 times higher, and pin cherry production 37 times higher, on managed private timberlands when compared with unmanaged public Park land. Although beechnut production was greater on unmanaged lands within the Park, managed timber stands also produced high numbers of beechnuts, and greater numbers of juneberries, elderberries, and blackberries. During the spring and summer bears preferred managed timberlands over unmanaged lands. Bears used managed and unmanaged lands equally during the fall. Wetland areas and fire succession stands found on both private and public lands within the Park were also important food producing areas used by bears periodically during the spring, summer, and fall.
The interspersion of relatively large tracts of forested managed and unmanaged land throughout the Adirondack Park provides for continued production of the wide range of food resources important to black bears during all seasons of the year. Together these two forest landscapes assure the continuation of the diversity of habitats necessary to support a thriving black bear population in the Adirondacks. New York state's black bear population is the third largest in the eastern United States.
The information presented in this pamphlet was based largely on research conducted at SUNY-ESF's Adirondack Ecological Center and funded by the following sponsors:
Finch, Pruyn & Company, Inc.
National Rifle Association of America
Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.
American Wildlife Research Foundation, Inc.
Camp Fire Conservation Fund, Inc.
Anderson, T. 1992. Black Bear Seasons in the Wild. Voyageur Press Inc., Stillwater, MN. 120 pp.
Brown, G.B. 1993. The Great Bear Almanac. Lyons and Burford Publishers, New York, NY. 325 pp.
Fair, J. 1990. The Great American Bear. North Woods Press, Inc., Minocqua, WI. 1991 pp.
Prepared by: Richard W. Sage, Jr. and Stephanie Simek, Graduate Student, SUNY-ESF Adirondack Ecological Center. Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania Public Broadcasting System station WPSX-TV.
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