By Biologist Wade Nolan
We often identify animals by their color. If you use these criteria on black bears you will be mistaken, as black bears come in at least four major colors. No North American animal has more color variation than black bears. I’ve been fortunate to see them all. With a little travel, you can see them all too.
Color phase bears are grouped into four major categories. Coal black is the most common. These bears are uniformly black and occasionally have a white blaze on their chest. These bears are found along the southern and eastern coast then inland to the Mississippi River and north across all of Canada. States west of Ol’Miss still host a lot of “black” bears but the color phase begins to emerge as you travel west.
Dr. Dave Samuel- Good friend and avid bear hunter, Dr. Dave Samuel has taken at least three B&C chocolate bears. This one is from Alberta.
Brown and chocolate bruins, sometimes even dark chocolate coat colors and can be found mixed in with totally black bears as one travels west. Brown and Coco bears are quite common in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan and south onto Americas great plains states. In some areas, up to 25% of the bears are color phase bears. On one Saskatchewan wilderness bow hunt I saw over 14 different black bears and all were black. This is an area with a notable percentage of color-phase bears. Even when color phase bears are part of the population they make up only a percentage of the bears.
Some bears out West are cinnamon colored. This color is a beautiful hue which is more common in desert and mountainous regions. Years ago, a friend Jerry Peterson and I were calling and filming bears in New Mexico near Arizona. We were on a steep mountain side dotted with big Ponderosa pine. The area was striped with rocky hogbacks and yellow grass. Jerry got busy sounding like a fawn in distress and within one minute I spotted a bear rapidly climbing toward us from below. It was my first look at a cinnamon black bear and he was a big one. His fur rippled with each lunge as he closed in on us. Being from Alaska and used to seeing brown bears this color, I had to remind myself that this was a color phase black bear. The moment was strikingly memorable. Jerry called him in way too close. When he figured us out he took off like a bottle rocket for another part of New Mexico. Although this bear was in America’s southwest, cinnamon bears range up the Rockies and into Canada. Blonde bears are much more uncommon.
The blonde color phase bears are less common than the others, even where they are most common. I set out to tag one with my bow a few years ago, and chose a region in northern Alberta on the Great Slave River. I think it was day four and I’d passed on some nice black bears. My guide carried me downstream in a flat-bottomed river boat for nearly an hour. We had to be 20 miles from our island camp when we landed. My guide had set up a bait 40 yards from the river bank. The bait had never been hunted and it was miles from nowhere. The tree stand was a short ten yards from the brown swirling river. What a special wilderness experience.
An hour in I spotted something blonde in color moving my way from inland. It was a very blonde bear. I got my bow ready and focused on this unusual bear. It was totally light blonde. The bear stopped at the bait. Looked directly at me 18 feet up in my tree and charged my tree and not stopping to change directions began huffing his way up to my tree stand. He climbed with the agility of a 250-pound squirrel….with teeth and claws.
I’m a veteran bear observer and this wasn’t the first bear that climbed my tree but this one climbed as if it were the Olympic tree climbing championships. His climb didn’t seem driven by curiosity. I was confused. Although I had some bear spray with me I drew my bow instead and tried to aim down past my boot. That’s more difficult than you think, especially when you consider the full -body-harness I was tied to the tree with and intervening limbs. The bear stopped at 18-inches below my stand. Somewhat panicked, I noticed I didn’t have a good shot. Plan “B” was quickly evolving. I had brief visions as me as a piñata tethered above my stand and getting batted around. Out of ideas, I screamed like a girl and stomped my boot.
He looked me over and began his climb down. Once he got to the dirt I let down and watched him walk over to the bait. Once there he glanced at me again, but this time I was watching him through my 3-pin sight. The arrow passed through his chest and into the Alberta dirt behind him. He ran only 25 yards in plain sight and did a forward roll. He was down.
Wade’s Double- This Alberta hunt was my most exciting ever. My only blonde bear. I took two bears in about five minutes. Both with attitude.
Before I had a chance to nock another arrow another black bear about the same size came running in, directly to the downed blondie. When he arrived at the bear something happened that gave me a shiver. The black bear began to bite, shake and claw the downed bear. There was even some unusual and unsettling vocalizations. I nocked my second arrow. Alberta has a two-bear limit.
This black bear eventually walked to the bait only to scan the area and look directly at me. Without any warning, he also charged my tree, this time right up to the base. For a moment, he glared up at me as if I’d said something unsavory about his mom. Then slowly he turned away and walked stiff legged over toward the downed bear. When he stopped briefly and turned to make eye contact with me an arrow passed through this bad actor as well. In under five minutes I had one of each flavor. An Alberta blonde among them, both boars.
The line of demarcation on color-phase is bold. I looked up some research on bear coloration. Of 14,535 black bears either checked in by hunters or research bears handled by researchers in Ontario, Tennessee, Maine, New York and Minnesota, none were color phase bears. Note that all of these study sites are east of the Mississippi River. In this region, brushy forests are the preferred haunt of bears. The black color of the bears hair may bring another benefit. The melanin rich pelage has a resistance to abrasion which may benefit a bear that is rubbing against brush and tree limbs when wandering in his natural habitat.
In contrast, black bears with brown or blonde coats are found in the open terrain of the west of the US and in the western provinces of Canada. This may be a reaction to the openness of the country and the exposure to direct sunshine. We all know that wearing a black shirt and black pants in Arizona when it is 100 degrees will cause discomfort and possibly heat stroke. Bears are no different. In one study on hogs in 1954 it was determined that black swine absorbed 90% more solar energy than light colored ones. Ninety percent is a lot of hot. Being coal black in the open plains or mountains of the west may cause heat stress and therefor be a poor pelage choice. This argument supports the lighter color-phase bears.
A lot of my personal research on black bears occurred in South Central Alaska. Here the Sitka spruce and hemlock forests are dense and dark. Even the open mountain sides are carpeted by dense alder, devils club and cow parsnip. Each is much taller than a black bear and therefore shades him.
One year I logged over 700 hours sitting above bear baits observing black bear habits and behavior. During that time, I encountered 119 different bears. All of them were totally black with the occasional exception of a few that had a white blaze on their chest. I know a lot of bear hunters in Alaska and don’t know one who has taken a blonde of brown blackie. Grizzlies and Brown bears on the other hand come is a wide range of colors from blonde to black. The Toklat color phase which is named after a river in the Alaska Range is a beautiful silver color. The bears referred to Toklat color phase are grizzlies. Not surprisingly, these bears spend months under Alaska’s constant sun on exposed mountain sides.
Color Phase bears are special. If you harvest one or just enjoy their unique look color-phase bears add color and depth to the wilderness.