A Short History of Bears in the United States

When the first Europeans set foot in what is now the United States, experts estimate that as many as half a million black bears lived in forested areas from coast to coast. West of the Continental Divide black bears shared space with as many as 50,000 grizzly bears. Bears played a pivotal role in the culture and day to day lives of an estimated 10,000 Native Americans who had lived on the land and coexisted with bears for centuries.

As the country was settled, forests were cleared, towns and cities sprang up and a host of inventions and discoveries made it easier for people to travel from coast to coast. Bears were regarded as dangerous predators that needed to be eliminated. Both black bear and grizzly bear populations fell as bears were eliminated from many parts of their historic ranges and pushed into the most remote and inaccessible areas.

Even fifty years ago, seeing a black bear was a rarity in much of the eastern US and grizzly bear populations south of Canada had been so decimated they were one of the first species to come under the protection of the historic 1978 Endangered Species Act.

Today, thanks to widespread public support and decades of enlightened conservation and management, black bear populations are once again thriving over much of their historic range and have returned to many areas where they hadn’t been seen in decades. Most of the world’s grizzly bears make their home in Alaska and northern Canada. But after decades of conservation, grizzly bear populations are once again stable and expanding in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington.

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