How Long Do Black Bears Live? The Answer Might Surprise You

a black bear in the wild

There are many places around the U.S. that black bears are able to live (photo by Dave Allen Photography/

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A couple of years ago – in the early spring when the black bear yearlings are moving to establish their own territories – we had a bear in our neighborhood. 

More accurately, a bear was spotted in our neighborhood. There are enough tracts of trees and forest around that there are probably always a certain number of bears living in our general vicinity.

We live in town and it just so happens that this one got caught on video during the daylight hours.

We live in an area known as a black bear habitat. Specifically, it is black bear habitat adjacent. However, spotting an Ursus Americanus is a buzz-worthy event. 

My son, John Paul, had a plan. He was 8 or so at the time and the idea was long on ambition but short on practicality.

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JP’s plan was to capture the bear and sell it to Zoo Knoxville for a million dollars. As a result, every night for a week or so, despite the fact that neither of us possessed the ability to catch a bear, we’d slowly cruise the neighborhood on bear watch.

I asked him if he felt solid about the price Zoo Knoxville would be willing to pay for a wild black bear caught in Morristown. He assured me that he and his friends at school had really crunched the numbers. 

We never did see the bear. However, I did take the time to go over what to do if we ever walked out to the garage and found ourselves face to face with a member of the local black bear population. Certainly, an unlikely scenario, but not outside the realm of possibility.  

We don’t see a lot of fully grown bears in the area. Perhaps it’s because the older bears tend to take fewer risks and stay away from populated areas. Maybe the younger bears are simply moving through the area and are therefore more visible.

 Read Also: Bears in Gatlinburg: 7 best places and tips to see a bear

A black bear mother with three cubs
Black bears live across large swaths of North America. Young bears stay with their moms for about two years (photo by Andrew/

Where do black bears live? 

In the largest sense, black bears live across large swaths of North America. American Black Bears can be found anywhere there are forests in which they can live.

For example, they can be found in all but the most northern parts of Canada and Alaska except for the little bit of the central plains that extend up into the middle of Canada.

The black bear habitat includes the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest, parts of New Mexico, Arizona and over to the Ozarks in Arkansas and Missouri.

In the Eastern United States, the black bear population lives all through the Appalachians. Specifically, from New England down through Tennessee into Northern Georgia.

The large animals have found spots to live along the coasts of North Carolina, South Georgia, Florida and along the panhandle of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

There are also significant swaths of black bear habitat in Mexico as well. Essentially, except for the plains states, parts of the Midwest and the deserts, the black bears’ home ranges over most of the continent. 

In a more micro sense, they make their dens in caves, hollow trees, under windfalls – blown down trees or brush – or caves or previously occupied dens. 

It’s odd to me that there is enough suitable habitat spread over such a large portion of North America for bears to continue to thrive.

We tend to think of bears as something unique. In fact, a rare animal sighting. But honestly, a large portion of our human populations live in somewhat relatively close proximity.

Black Bear Lounging on a Cabin Porch
A black playfully resting on a cabin porch (photo by Coy St. Clair/

How many black bears exist? 

The population estimate for the North American bear is about 600,000 – about half of which are in the U.S.

Populations in many places, including Florida and Louisiana where they used to be endangered, are on the rise.

About 1,500 of them live within the confines of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The number, I think, is smaller than I anticipated. 

For comparison, according to the National Park Service, there are about 500-650 black bears in Yellowstone National Park. 

I had assumed the best bear habitat would be within the national parks just for the available habitat to make good bear dens. On the contrary, it turns out the best place for black bears to live isn’t exactly where I thought it would be. 

Where is the best place for black bears to live?  

The black bears of Coastal North Carolina are living their best lives. According to, the Albemarle/Pamlico Peninsula has the highest density of black bears in the world.

There is an average of four black bears per square mile living there.

The current world record black bear is from Eastern North Carolina, weighing in at 880 pounds. 

A baby bear chewing on a plastic bottle
Humans can limit a bear’s lifespan with human food and trash (photo by DCrane/

How long does a wild black bear live?

They can live 15 to 20 years in the wild, feasting on small mammals such as squirrels, foxes, voles or even young deer. They also enjoy fruit, bugs, larvae and fish.

I did find a non-functioning link that claimed a Minnesota wild black bear lived to be 39. But I think it was a joke referring to the bear from the movie “The Great Outdoors” that nearly ate John Candy and Dan Akroyd.

Overall, they don’t have natural predators, so they can live a long time, provided they do not get too close to humans.

How long can they live in captivity?

In captivity, they can live up to 30 years and beyond. 

Grizzly Bear Hunting in a Stream
A grizzly bear generally lives around 25 years (photo by IslandWave/

How does that compare to other species of bears? 

Polar bears: Currently about 20-25 years but their habitat is shrinking. One in captivity reportedly lived to be 45.

Grizzly bears: About the same, 20-25 years. The oldest known bear was 34. 

Brown bears: Live about 20-30 years with the oldest known bear living to 35.

A Black Bear Lying Near Mounds of Trash
A scavaging black bear eats garbage out of a stolen trash bag on a neighborhood lawn (photo by Rachel Taylor/

What are the impediments to bears living out their lives?

Mostly human stuff. Residential areas encroaching on their habitat create a lack of food sources. This leads to two issues. First, the bears face starvation. But also, the lack of food availability drives them to turn to human food.

Bears are opportunistic feeders. Garbage cans, pet food and bird feeders all can be tempting and ultimately dangerous for bears.

In addition to savvy entrepreneurs like my son, bears getting close to human residential areas leads to more possibilities for negative interactions including getting hit by cars.

In Florida alone, a couple of hundred bears – many of them yearlings – perish on Florida roads before they reach maturity. 

Read Also: What do black bears eat? Do they have a favorite food?

How old is a full-grown bear?

Adult black bears reach sexual maturity at three years of age. Adult males reach their full growth at about five years of age. Female black bears may not get very large, 100 to 125 pounds.

However, habitat quality plays a large role in a bear’s size whether they are adult males or adult females. 

Black Bear in the Wild
A black bear in the wild will generally torpor rather than hibernate (photo by Jillina/

Do black bears really hibernate? 

In some ways, it’s a matter of semantics. 

Are black bears true hibernators? Some say yes, some say no. But they do survive the winter months with the help of some healthy winter sleep. 

According to the National Forest Foundation, black bears will enter a state of light sleep called torpor. Like hibernation, torpor involves the animal decreasing its breathing and heart rates. The NFF says bears can sleep more than 100 days without eating, drinking or doing what bears do in the woods.

That, to me, sounds a lot like hibernation. However, according to the NFF, hibernation is a voluntary state and torpor is not.

The main difference is an animal can wake up quickly from torpor if there are signs of danger. In contrast, hibernation is a deeper sleep.

However, our friends at the American Bear Center say bears do hibernate even though their hibernation is different than smaller mammals.  

“People have called black and grizzly bear hibernation torpor, winter sleep, dormancy and carnivoran lethargy,” the ABC says. “The leading physiologists now simply call it hibernation.”

I guess whether or not a bear hibernates comes down to if you standing with the leading physiologists or just the ones from the back of the pack. 

Have you seen a black bear in the wild? Let us know in the comments.

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John Gullion

John Gullion, Managing Editor at the Citizen Tribune, is a freelance contributor for LLC – the parent company of and

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