By Biologist Wade Nolan
You are about to learn something that will surprise you. If you want to hunt black bears over natural food, the formula may be easy. Eastern and northern black bears are largely dependent on acorns. Acorns are their meat & potatoes. In Alaska, their meat & potatoes are blue. Although bears are known as non-specific feeders or omnivores, eating almost everything from whitetail deer to ants to sedges for most of the year, they prefer and seek out the best foods before denning.
There is a reason for this. Bears must survive denning in the winter, and they must be prepared nutritionally to survive. Acorns are the eastern woodlands super food. They are fed upon by over 96 species of birds and mammals, and bears are among them. With a protein count at only 6%, it is the fats at 52% and the carbs at 42% that make them a perfect way to put on pounds to carry them over the winter.
Studies have confirmed that acorns are so preferred that one collared bear in Minnesota has been clocked as traveling 119 miles outside of its home range to attain acorns in the fall. Bears feed on oak mast voraciously in the autumn. I once filmed black bears in the Smokey Mountains feeding on black walnuts. They fed underneath one tree for hours as if the buffet was closing in ten minutes. The sow was crunching the hard shells in her mouth and spitting them out so the cubs could get to the nutmeat. She would then crunch a few for herself before the cubs caught up. The same goes for my bear observations in the Monongahela National Forest in parts of West Virginia black bears are regulars at white oaks that are dropping acorns in the fall. Mast is king.
Access to lots of acorns showed a dramatic weight variance for some bears. A northern Minnesota study found that after tracking, capturing and weighting eight mature black bear sows during pre-and post-denning, the weights of bears eating acorns was significantly different. Seven of them had no access to acorns and one did. The seven without acorns to fatten up on gained only 8% over their spring body weight before denning. The sow with acorn access had a weight gain of 98%, nearly doubling her weight before denning.
In another study, in the southern Appalachians, the shortage of acorns, especially white oak acorns, severely reduced birth and survival rates of bears. In the same region, it was found that acorn shortages definitely delay sexual maturity of sows. An acorn crop failure in the Great Smokey National Park region caused a near total reproductive failure of black bears in 1984.
I live on a small farm in southwestern Pennsylvania. We have black bears in the woods behind my barn. In fact, one local bear just developed a taste for chicken and my neighbor lost six in one night. Our black bears are plentiful and healthy but not because of chickens…its because of our oaks. Bear biologist Gary Alt along with two colleges, Kordek and Lindzey, studied PA bears’ eating habits and published a paper in 1980. Here is what they found.
Black bears show higher growth and reproductive rates in Pennsylvania than they do anywhere else, partly due to the abundance and variety of oaks there. 38% of Pennsylvania females produce litters by three years of age, and 88% do so by age four, with litters averaging three cubs every two years thereafter. By contrast, Minnesota sows without acorn access show lower reproductive rates, often not producing cubs until age six. By the time those females produce their first litters at six years of age, Pennsylvania females would have produced two litters, and some of the cubs from the first litters would be producing cubs of their own. Acorns are the foundation of this breeding success.
By contrast, in Alaska where I once lived and still work filming wildlife, the black bears are focusing on berries in the fall to fatten up for denning. There isn’t an oak tree in the state, but they do have about 100,000 black bears and enough blueberries to go around. Animals just know what to eat. And like eastern black bears and their lean toward acorns, northern bears target the blueberries. Even Dr. Axe thinks these blue gems are exceptional. They are a great source of carbs for bears, but they are also one of the world’s best sources of antioxidants and gallic acid. Although gallic acid is not on our everyday word list, let me mention that it is a heavily researched natural medicine powerhouse that benefits all who ingest it.
In Alaska, the denning period is extremely long lasting from October to May in most regions. Those bears need to really bulk up because of the long cold winter. If you want to hunt a black bear in the fall, you need only find a high mountain slope covered with blueberries. Bears dot the hills like black periods in September. Their heads bob up and down like woodpeckers for 12-18 hours a day. They seldom look up which makes them easy to stalk.
Our brown bears and grizzlies also know the importance of blueberries. I’ve been part of a number brown bear and grizzly hunts in the fall when we targeted them on berries. My friend once guided a bear hunter from Istanbul, Turkey up to a beautiful silver-tipped brown bear who was focused on eating blue berries. They took the bear at 150 yards with a rifle. I believe a bowhunter could have crawled up to within 20 yards of this bear that was in the center of a mile square blueberry hillside. The bear bobbed his head up and down 50 times a minute as he pulled berries from the 4-inch high bushes. The bear assumed that he was safe. After all, who would want to interrupt a giant brown bear during dinner?
So if you're interested in targeting black bears over natural food in the northeast, I suggest you scout out white and red oak groves in the autumn. If you find yourself stuck in Alaska, glass those brilliant burgundy fall mountainsides and set up a stalk on a berry-crazed black bear. But remember that our 32,000 brown bears and grizzlies like eating blueberries too.