n the U.S. and Canada, black bears are managed by individual states and provinces, so although an IUCN conservation action plan exists for this species (Pelton et al. 1999), each state and province sets their own goals and methods for achieving those goals. As a whole, this has worked well to re-establish robust populations of black bears across their range. Several key factors aided the rapid rebound of American black bears since the 1980s: (1) improved habitat, (2) large dispersal distances in high-quality habitat (Moore et al. 2014), (3) relatively high reproductive rates, (4) reduced human-caused mortality, and (5) better information about the biology and ecology of bears combined with better population monitoring techniques (Miller 1990).
Much forested habitat, essential for black bears, was cleared indiscriminately for agriculture during the 1700s–mid-1900s, but has since returned in many parts of the U.S. Most notably, northeastern U.S. (New England) has been naturally reforested back to near its pre-colonial extent (~400 years ago; Hall et al. 2002), although tree composition is different (fewer hard mast-producing trees as food for bears; Thompson et al. 2013). Some states and provinces also manage habitat to benefit bears (e.g., space, foods, travelways, den sites; Pelton et al. 1999).
Through the 1800s and early 1900s in some areas, black bears were extensively hunted for meat, skins, and grease (i.e., market hunting; Smith et al. 1991, Unger et al. 2013) or hunted or poisoned with the intent of eliminating or severely reducing their numbers to reduce damage to crops and livestock (Cardoza 1976, Raybourne 1987). Governments often paid a bounty to encourage the killing of black bears. Protection and recovery occurred state-by-state and province-by-province during 1902–1983 as laws were changed and bears gained protection as a big game species (Miller 1990). Thereafter, the number and sex of bears killed were more closely controlled through hunting regulations and restrictions on numbers of hunters. By the 1980s, under the belief that black bears reproduced slowly and were easily over-harvested, most management agencies took a conservative approach to black bear hunting to enable populations to increase (Hristienko and McDonald 2007). Moreover, an infrastructure of wildlife management agency personnel and hunters policed illegal take.
Wildlife management agencies have also taken an increasingly active role in reducing the number of bears killed in conflict situations through stricter laws against shooting and feeding (in some jurisdictions, feeding bears is illegal), and educational programs aimed at coexisting with bears by reducing attractants, promoting public tolerance, and recognizing that black bears are typically not a threat to human safety (Treves et al. 2009, Baruch-Mordo et al. 2014).
In Mexico all hunting seasons for American black bears have been closed since 1985, and the species is considered nationally endangered. Numerous conservation initiatives established by large private ranches and land cooperatives in northern Mexico have created large blocks of suitable habitat (e.g., oak-dominated forests) with protection from poaching (Doan-Crider 2003). Changing public attitudes toward bears in Mexico have also contributed to the recovery and expansion of the species (SEMARNAP 1999, Onorato and Hellgren 2001). Although bear populations are clearly increasing, population estimation and monitoring efforts are lacking because funding (normally associated with hunting fees in the U.S. and Canada) is not available. Hunting bans will likely not be lifted without better documentation of population size and trend.
In the southeastern U.S., where black bears now occupy 27–37% of their historic range (depending on whether primary range or total bear range are counted as occupied range; Scheick and McCown 2014), population recovery was aided by the establishment of national parks and other sanctuaries in the Appalachian Mountains and the Coastal Plain (Pelton and van Manen 1997). These large areas protect the habitat (especially mast-producing trees) and restrict hunter access. Beginning in the early 1970s, additional areas were established where bear hunting was prohibited, thus linking protected areas to other forested lands, including many private lands. the resulting conglomerates serve as dedicated or defacto sanctuaries, especially for adult females, that are a source for bears expanding into other areas (Beringer et al. 1998, Unger et al. 2013).
In some areas, populations of American black bears have either been augmented or reintroduced after former extirpation by transplanting bears from elsewhere (Clark et al. 2002). Reintroductions into Arkansas during the 1960s were highly successful (Smith et al. 1991). Licensed hunters in this state now harvest several hundred bears annually, and bears from Arkansas have expanded into neighboring states. Further reintroductions within Arkansas have been conducted more recently (Wear et al. 2005). A successful reintroduction augmented a newly-spawning population in Kentucky (Unger et al. 2013). Augmentation of several populations in Louisiana during the mid-1960s likely contributed to population recovery there.
The Louisiana black bear (U. a. luteolus), a recognized subspecies of American black bear, was listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1992 as a result of severe loss and fragmentation of its habitat combined with unsustainable human-caused mortality (Bowker and Jacobson 1995). At the time of the listing, and since then, the validity and integrity of this subspecies has been debated (Pelton 1991, Kennedy et al. 2002, Csiki et al. 2003, Puckett et al. 2015). Under this ruling, all bears within the historic range of the Louisiana black bear, from east Texas to southern Mississippi, have been protected. Much of the bottomland hardwood forest that the Louisiana black bear historically inhabited had been converted to agriculture. Since 1992, remnant bottomland hardwoods have been protected, and some marginal farmland converted to hardwood trees. Moreover, a new population of bears within Louisiana was established by translocating bears from other Louisiana populations (Benson and Chamberlain 2007) in order to create a stepping-stone between two separated populations; this enabled bears to travel between them (Laufenberg and Clark 2014). One irony is that the stepping-stone successfully linked a population that was believed to be native Louisiana black bears with a population that had previously been established by translocating U. a. americanus bears from Minnesota (1964–1967). The Minnesota bears had clearly adapted to the very different habitat and weather conditions in Louisiana, as they have been established there for three generations and their numbers have been increasing. However, if the luteolus subspecies has any merit, the successful establishment of a conservation corridor reduced the purity of that genetic stock.
The conservation efforts in Louisiana have been further enhanced through public information and education. This management program is organized by a broad coalition of state and federal agencies, conservation groups, forestry and agricultural industries, and private landowners. As a result, bears have been noticeably increasing in numbers and distribution in all three range states, although a breeding population does not yet exist in east Texas. Large, contiguous forested habitat capable of sustaining a population of black bears exists within the historical range of the subspecies in east Texas (Kaminski et al. 2013); however, surveys of local people indicate concern over potential conflicts with an established bear population in the area (Morzillo et al. 2010). In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting the Louisiana black bear, based largely on a rigorous study (Laufenberg and Clark 2014) that showed that all of the population criteria for recovery had been attained and adequate safeguards against future threats were in place (Fuller 2015).
Another typically-accepted subspecies of black bear (U. a. floridanus) was listed as threatened by the state of Florida in 1974, although legal hunting continued in some population strongholds until 1994. Habitat degradation, and bears being killed on highways and in conflicts with people are the primary threats to these bears. The fragmented habitat contributes to the high vehicle kills and human interactions. A public petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Florida black bear as a federally threatened species was denied in 1992. A black bear management plan, adopted in 1993, directed the state management agency to conserve habitat and reduce human-caused bear mortalities. These efforts, particularly habitat conservation measures and changes in human attitudes toward bears, supported a steady population increase (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission 2012). Florida black bears have been expanding into areas of unoccupied habitat as regrowth of understory and forests improve habitat quality, even as development reduces habitat quantity. In 2010 the status of the Florida black bear was re-evaluated using IUCN redlisting criteria, and after a thorough, peer-reviewed biological assessment and development of a management plan, the species was removed from the state’s threatened species list in 2012 (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission 2012). A hunt was initiated in 2015.
In British Columbia much conservation attention has been directed toward the Kermode subspecies (U. a. kermodei). This animal is commonly referred to as the “spirit bear” because it possesses a gene that when homozygous is manifested as white pelage (Ritland et al. 2001). White-phased animals have long been protected from hunting. A large system of protected areas was established in 2006 (Great Bear Rainforest Agreement) to ban or severely restrict logging within >200,000 ha of coastal temperate rainforest inhabited by this subspecies of black bear, as well as by brown bears. Additionally, the spirit bear was selected as the official provincial mammal of British Columbia.
Since 1992 all American black bears have been listed in Appendix II of CITES, under the similarity of appearance provision (Article II, para 2b). This listing stipulates that documentation of legal harvest is necessary for the import and export of body parts in order to prevent these from being confused as parts from illegally obtained bears. This listing was not designed to protect American black bears, but rather other species of threatened bears, particularly the Asiatic black bear (U. thibetanus), whose parts might otherwise be sold under the guise of being from American black bear.