University of Illinois Extension

Wildlife Directory

Black Bear (Ursus americanus)

Ursidae
Black Bear photo
Black bears (Ursus americanus) were used by early explorers and settlers in Illinois as a source of meat and hides. Adult males are called boars, adult females are called sows, and young bears are called cubs.Photo courtesy of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo taken by Mike Bender.

Did You Know?

Black bears were used by early explorers and settlers in Illinois as a source of meat and hides. Adult males are called boars, adult females are called sows, and young bears are called cubs.

Description and Identification

Black bears are very large omnivores (eat both plants and animals). They have a rounded appearance since they have short, thick legs, a compact body, and a short tail (approximately 4 inches long). The coat is often black or dark brown, but may have a reddish or cinnamon color. The head is large and rounded with rounded ears. The muzzle is elongated and is often tan in color. There may or may not be a small patch of white or light colored fur on the chest.

  • Average Length: 4 to 6 feet
  • Average Height: 2 to 3 feet at the shoulder when standing on all four paws; 4 to 6 feet when standing on the hind legs.
  • Average Weight: 250 to 350 pounds (adult male); 120 to 180 pounds (adult female)

Tracks

Black bear tracks are easy to distinguish from other animals, because the hind feet are larger than the front feet, and the tracks will be much larger than any other wildlife track found in Illinois. The tracks of the hind feet are approximately 3.5 to 4 inches wide and 7 inches long, while tracks from the front feet measure approximately 3 to 4 inches across and 4 inches long. Black bears have five toes on each foot, each with a curved, 1.25 inch, non-retractable claw.

Animals Often Mistaken for Black Bears

In Illinois, large dogs, such as black Labrador retrievers, would be the most likely animals to be misidentified as a black bear. Full-grown bears are substantially larger than dogs and have a more rounded appearance. Black bears also have very short tails that are not usually visible since bears keep their tails tucked close to their body. In contrast, most dog breeds have long tails. Additionally, dogs have slender legs and small paws compared to a bear.

Status in Illinois

Black bears, once common in Illinois, were eliminated from the state by 1870. There are currently no resident populations of black bear in Illinois, but three bears have been confirmed here in the past few years.

In 2008, a black bear was sighted multiple times moving through Bureau County. On February 3, 2009, officers from the Illinois Conservation Police, along with the assistance of a wildlife expert from the Quad Cities, captured the black bear, which was then transported to a USDA licensed facility in southern Illinois. The male bear weighed approximately 200 pounds and was in good health at the time of capture. The origin of the bear is unknown, but based on its condition at capture, biologists suspect the bear had been in human care prior to its release or escape.

In June 2009, a black bear wandered down the Iowa side of the Mississippi River, crossed into Illinois near Savanna, wandered north through Carroll and Jo Daviess counties, and then crossed into Wisconsin.

On May 26, 2014, a black bear was photographed at a residence near Galena in Jo Daviess County. The bear made its way east past Stockton, Freeport, and Rockford. On June 10, 2014, it was located north of Belvidere in Boone County. It headed south and was seen near Genoa in southeast Dekalb County. The bear then travelled through Stephenson, Winnebago, Boone, and Dekalb counties. It was last reported near Chana in Ogle County. (Last update 6/15/14)

What To Do If You See A Bear

If you see a bear: DO NOT RUN. Do not surprise the bear. Make noise to ensure that the bear is aware of your presence. A black bear is not likely to attack a person unless it feels trapped or provoked. Respect the bear's space and do not approach it. If the bear sees you, initially stand your ground, look as large as possible (e.g., stand up straight and put your arms up in the air), and slowly back away. If possible, go inside a building or get into a vehicle.

Black bears display two types of behavior - defensive and offensive. A bear may swat at the ground or surrounding vegetation, lunge toward you, or vocalize (e.g., blow air out of its mouth or pop its jaws). These defensive behaviors are used to warn you to move away. Slowly back away from the bear. With offensive behavior, the bear will move towards you quickly. If you have food with you, drop the food, and keep moving away from the bear. If a black bear makes contact with you, always try to fight it off. DO NOT PLAY DEAD.

Help Keep Black Bears Wild

If a black bear is reported in your area: DO NOT FEED THE BEAR. Feeding a bear will lessen its wariness of humans and may encourage it to approach you, or other people, which will only cause problems. Bird feeders and grills should be stored inside at night (or when not in use), and food residue should be cleaned up. Garbage should also be secured and stored inside where possible.

Report a Sighting

If you believe you have seen this animal, please report the sighting to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.