Long before humans began inhabiting North America, bears ranged across the entire continent. Though bears co-existed with native populations of humans inhabiting North America for some 15,000 years, the arrival of European settlers rapidly reshaped the distribution of black bears. Like other wildlife resources that the settlers found in abundance, they took bears freely with traps and guns. Unfortunately, black bears represented more than just food and furs to settlers. They posed real and perceived threats to families, livestock, and crops, so they shot bears at will.
Besides killing individual bears, the settlers’ plows and axes took a lasting and wider toll. Woodcutting, burning, and clearing changed the wild habitat that the bears needed to survive. Within a 150-year period, much of America’s forests had been cut down. As the wave of human expansion changed the wooded lands into farm fields and pastures, black bears lost much of their native habitat.
Black bear populations remained in some of the more mountainous, swampy, and rugged regions. The few black bears that inhabited these regions came under the pressures of unregulated market hunting for their hides, meat, and fat. Due to their low reproductive rate, bears recover more slowly from population losses than other North American mammals. By 1900, the black bear population shrank in many areas of the country almost to the point of extinction.
Eventually, much of North America began to realize the importance of wildlife management, including the future of the black bear. By the mid 1900s, hunting seasons became heavily controlled or closed altogether, and bear restoration programs began in some states. While all this was happening, the forests that had been cut and burned decades before began to recapture the landscape. Once the wild habitat started to return, black bears began reclaiming their historic range.
Compared to some species, such as the grizzly bear, black bears proved adaptable to human development and under the protection of modern, professional wildlife management, their populations soon recovered in many areas. Beginning in the late 1980s through the start of the twenty-first century, black bear numbers increased at a rate of two percent a year continent-wide, with some states such as New Jersey and Maryland reporting five-fold increases. Though black bears have not yet reclaimed their original range across America, they have rebounded to populations of an estimated 800,000 bears spread across 37 states and all Canadian provinces… the highest population in the past 100 years.