Black bears are a common sight across Arizona, and the people who live there have learned how to live in harmony with them. It can still be scary coming across a bear when you’re on your hike or even just relaxing in your own backyard. But, don’t panic! There are safe ways to address these situations.
Bears have been respected throughout history, and the United States has a rich history interacting with bears, starting with Native Americans.
1. Black Bear (Ursus americanus)
Today, the black bear is the only kind of bear still found in Arizona. These bears are the most common species in North America, found in forests across Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
Although black bears have their name for a reason, they actually come in many different colors. For this reason, many people call them the “American Black Bear” instead. Black bears are all one species, but they can be black, cinnamon, blue-gray, blue-black, or even white in coloration. Many of these bears also have a white marking in the shape of a “V” on their chest.
Brown colored black bears are actually the most common in the United States, so they are often confused with actual brown bears. However, only black bears are found in Arizona. They are usually found in forests where they expertly climb trees. However, they can be found in mountains and swamps as well.
Their bodies are large and stocky with their bodies ranging in length from 5-6 feet/1.5-1.8 meters. They can weigh up to 200-600 pounds/90-270 kilograms, and their tails are short and stubby. The head is small compared to the neck and rest of the body, and their ears are small and round. They can live up to 20 years in the wild.
2. Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis)
The grizzly bear is a subspecies of the brown bear that is found in parts of North America. Their coloration does not have as much variation as the black bear, although their brown fur may often have white tips.
They are significantly larger than black bears with a length spanning 5-8 feet/1.5-2.4 meters and a weight of up to 800 pounds/362.8 kilograms. Some of these bears can be twice the size of black bears. They can live up to 25 years in the wild.
Grizzlies are more formidable than black bears, not only for their size, but because they are more aggressive and can run at speeds up to 40 mph/64.4 kmh.
Most people today don’t realize that Grizzly bears used to roam parts of Arizona. Just 100 years ago, these bears could be seen in the upper portions of the Rincon Mountains east of Tucson, Arizona. Evidence of these bears is reported in historical and biological records. They likely inhabited other Arizona mountain ranges as well.
The last grizzly bear ever seen in the state was spotted at 8,000 feet/2,438.4 meters of elevation south of the Rincon Mountain’s peak. Unfortunately, this bear met its end in the trap of a hunter, which was legal at the time.
Grizzly bears used to be a very common sight in Arizona, living in grasslands as well as in forests. Then, people began moving into the area and forcing the animals out. They were pushed higher up the mountains away from people, or they risked being killed.
Most of the people moving into Arizona made their living through farming and ranching. Livestock was their livelihood, and bears posed a danger to that.
Grizzly bears are massive animals that need a lot of space. They’re solitary animals, and their home range can consist of up to 600 square miles/1,554 square meters. So, not many grizzly bears can live in the same vicinity, making it even more difficult for them to coexist with humans.
At one time, grizzly bears were found through most of western North America, including the Great Plains. Today, they have been driven out of all but five states: Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Alaska, and Washington State. There was once thought to be about 50,000 grizzly bears across the United States. Today, the numbers are about 1,400-1,700 bears.
Because their populations have been so driven down, grizzly bears are now protected all across the United States. The only state where it is legal to hunt these animals is Alaska. They are significantly more common in Canada where they are also hunted as big game.
You may also like: Learn the Two Types of Bears Living in Japan: With Images, Facts, and More!
Management of Arizona’s game species is of the utmost importance to the state. Their aim is to “protect, restore, and manage game populations and their habitats; to maintain the natural diversity of Arizona; and to provide wildlife-oriented recreational opportunities for all present and future generations.”
To implement their big game management plan, government officials first developed a vision of what they’d like to happen. This is the overarching “strategic plan”. From there, the plan trickles down into smaller plans that encompass how things will be done, followed by their implementation.
The basis for these plans are the four principles held by the Arizona game management program. They uphold that science should always be the basis for all management operations. They uphold that the wildlife will be held in the public’s trust, and that the public should have a part in all decision making concerning management. They also uphold that hunting should be regulated to keep wildlife populations sustainable.
A big part of Arizona’s wildlife management plan is the implementation of the Geographic Information System (GIS). GIS is an electronic mapping tool that allows researchers to layer elements such as wildlife corridors, roads, pathways, developments, and habitats among many others.
Researchers can use these all-encompassing interactive maps to implement management. It gives them a visual tool to be able to easily work with other organizations to come up with better management strategies. Besides that, the maps help them visualize which habitats are critical, and what they need to do to protect and restore them.
As with every state, the Arizona Game & Fish Department has regulations when it comes to the killing of wildlife, and black bears are no exception.
It is illegal in the state of Arizona to kill a black bear without a valid hunting license. Exceptions are when the bear is killed in self-defense, or if the bear is killed in the protection of livestock.
In order to hunt black bears in Arizona, a person must have a valid hunting license. Additionally, they need to have a tag for the bear they plan to hunt. Most hunters can simply acquire a non permit-tag from their local license dealer. However, if you are planning to hunt in the spring, a permit-tag may be required. A person may only hunt and kill one black bear a year.
Some hunters will choose to go on specific hunts during the season. These hunts will have a limit on how many female bears can be killed during the hunt. If you are participating in one of these hunts, you need to ensure that your party has not already hit the limit. Once the number of females harvested has reached its assigned limit, the hunt will be closed.
If you do get a black bear, whether hunting solo or as part of a party, the kill must be reported. You can report your bear to the Arizona Game & Fish Department either in-person or by phone. The report must be made within 48 hours of making the kill.
When you make the report, be prepared to give your name, your hunting license number, your phone number, the tag number, the management unit from where you got the bear, and the sex of the bear.
In addition to reporting the taking of the bear, you must submit parts of the bear’s body for inspection within 10 days. You must bring the skull of the bear along with its hide and proof of its sex. The Arizona Game and Fish Department needs to make these inspections so that they can keep an eye on the numbers and health of the bear populations.
When people think of National Parks and go there to visit, they likely think of bears. A big part of planning a trip to a national park is coming up with a plan if you come across dangerous wildlife. Clearly, bears are no exception.
Bears can be found in about a third of all of the national parks in the United States. It should come as no surprise that bears are found in Arizona’s national parks.
Here is a list of Arizona’s national parks where you can find black bears:
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Navajo National Monument
- Canyon De Chelly National Monument
- Petrified Forest National Park
- Tonto National Monument
- Wupatki National Monument
- Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
- Walnut Canyon National Monument
- Tuzigoot National Monument
- Montezuma Castle National Monument
- Saguaro National Park
- Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
- Fort Bowie National Historic Site
- Chiricahua National Monument
- Coronado National Memorial
- Tumacacori National Historical Park
You may have noticed that I’ve only referred to black bears when it comes to Arizona, and that’s because black bears are the only kind of bear you’ll find here. Grizzly bears used to live in Arizona, but they were driven to extinction in the area years ago. We will cover that more in depth later.
Although it is a tragedy that Grizzly bears are no longer a part of Arizona’s ecosystem, it does make hiking a bit safer. Black bears are not nearly as dangerous to come across as grizzlies.
Many people go to visit national parks specifically so they can see the wildlife. Seeing animals that you would not normally see at home is part of what makes national parks so exciting.
Usually, seeing a black bear in a park is left up to chance because they avoid humans. However, there are things that you can do to safely track a black bear and view them from a distance while on your hike.
To find a bear in its natural habitat, you need to know where to look. Black bears will go where their food is, so you need to know what they’re eating during each time of the year:
- In the spring, you are more likely to find black bears in meadows where they’re digging up vegetation
- In the fall, they are more prone to climbing trees in search of acorns and other tree-dwelling foods
If you’ve gone to these locations and still haven’t found a bear, there are some other things you can look out for. You will often see evidence of their recent presence by their scratch marks on bark, their scat, or their footprints in the soil. You are also likely to notice logs that are torn up or turned over, as well as rocks that are pushed over.
Even if you want to view a bear on your hike, you’ll want to do so safely. It’s never a good idea to surprise the bear. Therefore, it’s not ideal to meet a black bear on the trail. Fortunately, there are things you can do to prevent yourself from running into a bear while hiking.
1. Make lots of noise
2. Don’t hike at dawn, dusk, or a night
3. Hike in a group
4. Don’t listen to music
5. Store your food properly and don’t litter
6. Camp Safely
Living With Bears
If you live in Arizona, you’re likely to see a bear close to home at some time or another. Don’t panic if this happens, though, there are some steps you can take to keep you and your loved ones safe.
Black bears are generally more scared of humans than we are of them, so they won’t usually go into a human-inhabited area willingly. If you see them near your home, they are likely searching for food.
Many people leave their garbage cans unsecured. They may leave out birdseed or food for the local strays. They might have fruits growing in their lawns and gardens. All of these scenarios make for an easy meal for a black bear. Although you aren’t likely to see them stealing food in the light of day, they will often come around at night when the humans are asleep.
Certain environmental circumstances can drive black bears closer to people’s homes, and urban areas as well. Droughts and wildfires are quite common in Arizona and can destroy a bear’s habitat. When they can’t find a source of food in their usual territory, they will be forced to look elsewhere. Habitat destruction for development can have similar effects.
When black bears come near homes or into urban areas searching for food, it can result in a bit of destruction. Some people, especially tourists, will feed bears for fun. This is incredibly dangerous and encourages bears to come to humans for food.
More often than not, though, people feed the bears unintentionally through garbage cans, or pet food, like I suggested earlier. When this happens, they will climb into dumpsters, tear apart garbage cans, and pull down grills and bird feeders. On some occasions, they may even break open screen doors or windows in search of food.
If you live in Arizona, or any area with bears, here are a few things you can do to keep them away:
- Do not feed or water the bears
- This includes leaving food and water outside for pets or strays
- Feeding any kind of animal outside will attract bears
- Keep your garbage inside or inside an securely enclosed can
- Do not put bird feeders or fruiting trees within 50 feet/15.2 meters of your house
- Use fences and porch lights to keep them away — bears are great climbers, so fences should be at least 6 foot/1.8 meters tall to act as a useful deterrent
So, what should you do if you come in contact with a bear?
Black bears are not usually much of a threat because they are often more afraid of humans than we are of them. If a black bear senses that you’re in the area, it will usually change direction to avoid you.
However, this does not mean that you should assume black bears are not dangerous. They are wild animals, and as with any wild animal, they are unpredictable and may attack. The most dangerous black bear is a black bear that has gotten used to receiving food from humans.
If you live in Arizona where black bears are common, you should take steps to prevent attracting black bears to your home.
If you see a black bear in your yard or while you’re out hiking, there are some things you should do to protect yourself.
If the bear is far away, simply change the direction you’re walking so that you will not intersect with the bear.
If you come across a black bear unexpectedly, you should try to make yourself look as large as possible. Stand up tall and raise your arms in the air. You’ll want to wave your arms around, as well as anything you’re carrying with you. Yell at the bear, or whistle, and bang loud objects together.
When facing a black bear, it’s very important that you make yourself as big and loud as possible. You should never attempt to play dead, and you should definitely never run.
If you play dead, they will be curious and are more likely to attack and scratch you than if you scared it away. Running away, on the other hand, is simply an invitation for the bear to chase you. They are incredibly fast, and you will not outrun them.
After yelling and making a scene, give the bear a chance to leave the area — they usually will. If, for some reason, the bear decides to stand its ground, slowly back away, never turning your back to the animal.
Bears In Culture
In many ancient cultures, bears were revered as a symbol of strength, power, and magic. Today, they are still honored in many cultures across the world. They symbolized something different for different peoples, and there are many legends still surrounding them today.
The Native Americans truly revered bears and believed that the gods had placed them on the earth to be honored. They believed that the gods provided the bears for their people to benefit from them spiritually and physically, and they never killed them in their rituals. Many tribes recognized bears as gods.
Bears were seen in much of Native American art and jewelry. Certain tribes also practiced rituals to help the bears. For example, the “Indian Bear Dance” was believed to bring back the ghosts of the people’s ancestors while also helping bears drift into sleep for their winter hibernation.
Once the bears have gone into hibernation, the Native Americans would practice the “Circle of Life Dance”. They would dance around a burning fire until it went out. This dance would be performed through winter while the bears hibernated, asking for warmth and light.
Although they performed rituals to benefit the bears, they also hunted the bears. Their meat was used to nourish their bodies, while their fur was used for clothing, and the claws were used to make jewelry.
Because bears were believed to have spiritual power, wearing a bear claw was believed to be protection.
Before humans colonized North America, bears were one of the most adaptable mammals on the continent. Brown bears were found across many states that they have now been driven out of.
Because of their adaptability, the Native Americans saw them as strong and resilient. They looked up to them as an example that they could also persevere and survive. Despite their massive size, bears are able to move quickly and have great maneuverability.
Unfortunately, Native Americans and the bears they were so spiritually linked to, received much the same fate. The colonizers that came to the Americas were afraid of both the Native Americans and bears. Both populations suffered extensive slaughter at the hands of the Europeans.
Today, bears are still loved and revered, and we see them in much of our media and consumerism. For example, teddy bears have been one of the most popular toys since the early 1900s, and it still is today.
We see bears consistently in entertainment, like the Bearstein Bears and Paddington Bear. Both of these bear stories are popular with children and adults alike. And no one could forget Winnie the Pooh, one of the most famous bears of all.
In the movie “Brave”, princess Merida goes to a witch and makes a wish. The wish results in her mother being turned into a bear, and Merida must figure out how to save her.
In another movie, “Brother Bear”, an Inuit man kills a bear after it has killed his brother. As punishment, he turns into a bear himself. Through this journey, he befriends a young cub and learns that bears are not the problem, and that humans are the real threat.
However, there are other forms of media that have fueled people’s fear of bears. For example, in the movie “The Revenant”, a man is brutally mauled by a bear and left for dead by his hunting party.
The way that bears are often portrayed by the media leads to people being unnecessarily afraid of them. Of course, if you’re going to be in an area with bears, you should take every precaution. But, if you are careful and do not disturb bears, you shouldn’t have much to fear from them.
Still, overall, bears are revered in today’s culture. In the United States, the bear is the state animal for several different states. We also use the bear as a symbol, such as with Smokey the Bear, to warn people of the dangers of wildfires.