The role of the black bear in Mississippi has changed dramatically over time. Native Americans used bears for subsistence, killing them when needed to provide food and clothing. The arrival of European explorers saw the trading of bear products for items such as guns and fabrics. As humans inhabited more land, they came to see bears as a threat and a nuisance to crops and livestock and started killing at every opportunity. In the Delta region of the state, bear hunting became a sport, attracting people from all over the United States and Europe. Hunting bears from horseback with the aid of dogs gave rise to some of the greatest bear hunting legends in North America as well as the world’s most popular children’s toy—the teddy bear.
Mississippi is currently home to two subspecies of black bears. The American black bear (Ursus americanus americanus), which occurs in the northern half of Mississippi, was once distributed throughout most of eastern North America, the Great Plains, and Canada. The Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus), which occurs in the southern half of the state, once ranged throughout eastern Texas, Louisiana, southern Arkansas, and southern Mississippi.
Generally speaking, black bears are found in three areas within the state: the Gulf Coast, the Loess Bluffs of Southwest Mississippi, and the Mississippi River Delta. It is believed that the majority of bears found in Mississippi are males that have dispersed from populations in other states at some point during their lives. In recent years, however, females have been documented with greater frequency.
Black bears in Mississippi are generally black with brown muzzles. Some bears exhibit a white patch of hair or “blaze” on their chest. Bears can grow to six feet in length and stand three feet tall at the shoulder. Average body weights are 150 to 350 pounds for adult males and 120 to 250 pounds for adult females, although larger bears have been documented in the state.
Black bear habitat consists of escape cover, dispersal corridors, den sites, and a diversity of natural foods. Bears are highly adaptable but prefer large, remote blocks of bottomland hardwood forests, although they have been found to thrive in smaller, fragmented habitats, particularly in agricultural areas. Most bear sightings in Mississippi occur in forested areas close to rivers or streams.
Range sizes for black bears can vary depending on habitat quality and time of year. The range for an adult male bear in Mississippi has been found to be up to one hundred thousand acres, while the range for an adult female can be up to thirty-two thousand acres. Range sizes typically increase during the summer mating season and during fall, when bears are foraging heavily to build fat reserves.
Although classified as carnivores, black bears are not active predators. Up to 90 percent of a black bear’s diet is composed of plant materials, including acorns, berries, grasses, and agricultural crops. The majority of protein in a bear’s diet comes from insects and carrion.
Black bears do not truly hibernate but rather go into a deep sleep that can begin in November and last until May. During this period, bears exhibit reductions in body temperature, metabolism, and heart rate but can be easily aroused if disturbed. Bears typically make their dens in hollow cypress or oak trees or in ground dens beneath fallen logs or logging debris.
Females generally breed for the first time at three years of age and will give birth every other year in optimal habitat conditions. Cubs are born in winter dens during January, with litter sizes ranging from one to five. Cubs weigh only eight ounces at birth but will weigh four to five pounds when they emerge from the den in April. Cubs will stay with their mothers for eighteen months before dispersing.
Mississippi black bears are normally very shy and secretive animals and are not aggressive toward humans. Contrary to popular belief, female bears are not typically aggressive in defense of their young. Although there has never been a documented attack on a person by a bear in Mississippi, black bears are wild animals and should always be treated with respect.
- J. F. Benson, “Ecology and Conservation of Louisiana Black Bears in the Tensas River Basin and Reintroduced Populations” (master’s thesis, Louisiana State University, 2005)
- M. R. Pelton, in Ecology and Management of Large Mammals in North America, ed. Stephen Demarais and Paul R. Krausman
- C. C. Shropshire, “History, Status, and Habitat Components of Black Bears in Mississippi” (PhD dissertation, Mississippi State University, 1996)
- Brad Young, “Conservation and Management of Black Bears in Mississippi,” Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (2006)