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The Truth About Bears: The Maps

Bears in the lower 48 have rebounded from decades of declining populations and shrinking habitat. Also improving: your chance of seeing a bruin in the wild. By Ted Alvarez
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Illustration by Andy Potts

Black Bears Everywhere
The North American black bear population dropped significantly in the early 20th century, perhaps as low as 200,000. Today? It approaches a million. And bears aren’t just thriving in remote wilderness. “They’re returning to places where they were displaced by people,” says Chris Servheen, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and adjunct professor at the University of Montana. “Places like New Jersey.” That’s not a misprint. The most densely populated state, home to Atlantic City and Snooki, hosts nearly 2,000 black bears. As recently as 1995, just a few hid in a northwest slice of the state. Since then, protections have enabled Jersey bears to spread far and wide, with sightings in every county by 2009.

“Bears are increasing in both numbers and range, particularly in the Lower 48,” says Servheen, who has managed continental grizzly bear recovery for 31 years. The Lower 48 alone supports about 375,000 black bears and 1,700 grizzlies (Alaska has about 100,000 and 30,000, respectively). Why the boom? “A big reason is careful management, coupled with the fact that they’re very adaptable and very successful in a wide range of habitats,” he says.

Much credit goes to strategies like preserving habitat, limiting hunting, and encouraging public education and the use of bear-resistant food storage systems (in the backcountry) and trash cans (in the frontcountry). And we’ve also ceded some of their territory back to them, a remarkable milestone given the relentless human expansion across North America in the last 500 years.

“As marginal farmlands have been abandoned, black bears have moved back into those habitats,” says Stephen Herrero, a leading bear researcher at the University of Calgary and author of the required-reading Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. “The expansion means many new opportunities for enjoyment, appreciation, and understanding of bears,” he says. “But it also poses many new management challenges.”
You can see why in suburbs coast to coast. Neighborhood black bear antics are well documented on YouTube—in places like Boulder, Colorado (where the town’s famously focused cyclists have collided with bears at least twice since 2008), but also in surprising locales like the Atlanta ’burbs. City wildlife managers across the country now apply the lessons of the bear frontier (keep pet food indoors, don’t leave trash outside, etc.) to McMansion country in hopes of keeping the peace between the species. It’s mostly working, but even New Jersey introduced a six-day bear hunt in 2010 to help manage the growing population.

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