Black bears in Mississippi are generally black with a brown muzzle and sometimes a chest marking called a “blaze” which can be a small white patch or a large white patch or “V”. Average body weights are 150 to 350 pounds for adult males and 120 to 250 pounds for adult females although larger animals have been documented in the state. Bears are 3 to 6 feet from nose to tail and generally stand 2 to 3 feet at the shoulder. Females generally reach full size at five years whereas males won’t reach full potential until eight years of age. Black bears have small eyes and have relatively poor eyesight but can see in color. Black bears walk on all fours and have short non-retractable claws on the ends of each of their five toes.
In Mississippi, black bears thrive in a wide variety of habitat types and require diverse natural foods, water, escape cover, dispersal corridors and den sites. Some type of relatively impenetrable cover is also necessary for good habitat and this escape cover is especially critical in areas of fragmented habitat and areas close to human settlement. Black bears are known to inhabit several different forest communities in the Southeast but prefer bottomland hardwood forests. In Mississippi, river and stream corridors of bottomland hardwoods provide the most suitable habitat.
Although classified as carnivores, black bears are not active predators. They are considered to be opportunistic feeders and will feed on whatever is seasonally available. Black bear diets consist of 90 percent or greater plant matter. In fact, a Louisiana study showed bear diets of 96 percent plant matter. Bears have relatively inefficient digestive systems and must consume large quantities of food. Consequently, bears spend considerable amounts of time foraging. Movements and habitat use are often directly related to availability of seasonal foods. Favorite foods in Mississippi consist of acorns, other nuts, berries, grasses, agricultural crops, and insects.
Female black bears typically reach sexual maturity at three to five years of age. Mississippi females come into estrus as early as late May and as late as August with the peak of breeding taking place in July. Dominant males may mate with several females in an area. Length of gestation from time of breeding to birth is approximately 220 days. Cubs are born in dens during January or February. At time of birth, cubs weigh about 10 ounces and are about 8 inches long. Litter sizes range from one to five with twins being most common. Cubs emerge from their dens in April or May and generally weigh 4 to 8 pounds. Cubs will stay with their mother for the next year and den with their mother the following winter. They emerge from their dens together again in spring and stay together until the summer when the family unit dissolves, about the time the mother comes into estrus again.
Black bear home range size is largely influenced by habitat quality and especially food availability. Radio collared bears in Mississippi have shown males average using 90,000 acres while female ranges covered 13,000 acres. A significant cause of movement in black bears is dispersal following separation from the family unit. After separation, yearling females will generally establish a home range within or adjacent to their mother’s home range while males tend to move far from their mother’s range. Yearling males establish ranges based on availability of unoccupied territory and other males in the area. The ability of bears to move long distances, especially dispersing males, puts them at considerable risk. Dispersing males routinely cross roads and highways, increasing chances of a collision and chances of entering areas inhabited by people. It is not unusual for young dispersing males to show up in odd areas in Mississippi during June, July, and August.
Black bears are not true hibernators but rather enter a period known as torpor. The primary purpose of this extended sleep is to survive food shortages and extreme weather during winter months. Bears also will not eat, drink or remove waste products from their body during this period of sleep. Generally, pregnant females are first to den, followed by females with young of the year, solitary females, and finally males. Some males only spend a few days or weeks bedding down before moving again. Black bears in Mississippi have been found to use a wide variety of den structures including hollow trees, standing snags, ground nests, piles of woody debris, and even excavated areas. Tree dens are typically located along water courses and are made in cavities of bald cypress, overcup oak, or other hardwoods. A Mississippi State University study, partially funded by BEaR, showed that bears in Mississippi used equal number of tree dens and ground dens.
Black bears can live for over 25 years in the wild. Black bears in Mississippi don’t have natural enemies and most mortality can be attributed to natural and human causes. Causes of natural mortality include disease, maternal care, and climbing accidents. The 2011 Mississippi River flood resulted in drowning deaths of 7 cubs and one adult bear that were known. Human-induced causes of mortality can include habitat destruction, poaching, vehicle collisions, and electrocutions. The majority of adult bear deaths in Mississippi are vehicle collisions.